EDITORIAL: Holder finally brings some balance to drug sentences

It's taken too many years. Nonetheless, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement that he has instructed federal prosecutors to stop pursuing long prison sentences for minor drug offenders is welcome. In his speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco on Monday, Holder made public the Justice Department's new, more lenient and sensible charging policies.

"Low-level nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels," Holder said, "will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences."

It is a long-overdue change that will improve fairness in the justice system, save money and make communities safer.

While some Republicans in Congress chided Holder and the administration for acting without legislative approval, the new policy attracted a fair amount of bipartisan support. Both conservatives and liberals have recognized that over-reliance on incarceration in the nation's five-decade-old "war on drugs" has been a costly failure. Three years ago, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, aimed at reducing the disparity in sentencing between crimes involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine.

More recently, bills have been introduced in Congress by Democrats and Republicans to give judges more discretion to ignore mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and to impose punishments that more appropriately fit the crimes and the criminals charged.

As Holder noted, the United States, which accounts for 4.5% of the world's population, locks up almost a quarter of the world's prisoners. The federal prison population has increased an astonishing 800% since 1980, and U.S. prisons are bulging at 40% beyond their capacity. These levels of incarceration are unsustainable and make us unsafe. Inmates emerge from prison more dangerous than when they arrived.

Even before Holder's address, states had begun scaling back long prison sentences, California among them. In part the result of lawsuits but also because of sentencing reforms approved by the Legislature and the public, California's prison population has dropped from a high of 162,000 in 2002 to 117,000 today.

While the governor is resisting court orders to further cut the prison population to about 110,000 by year's end, the state would be wise to invest in more cost-effective alternatives, including proven drug treatment programs, education, job training and community service, and not invest in more prisons or jail beds.

As Holder stated in his speech, the documented discrimination in the sentencing of African American men -- who, on average, receive sentences 20% longer than sentences imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes -- is "shameful." It leads to disrespect for the law and turmoil in too many poor communities of color.

The ultimate goal of the sentencing reform Holder rightly advocates is not only a more just society, but a safer one.