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Column: Holder follows GOP lead in easing harsh drug laws

By Grover G. Norquist and Patrick Gleason

Attorney General Eric Holder issued a directive last week, instructing all U.S. Attorneys to revisit current drug cases involving low-level, non-violent offenders and waive harsh mandatory sentencing requirements where appropriate.

In doing so, the White House is turning its attention to one issue — criminal justice reform — where Democrats and Republicans have actually found common ground.

Though crime levels have been falling for the last 20 years, incarceration rates and prison costs have sharply increased. It is the states, particularly those under Republican control, that are leading the way here — enacting reforms that have cut incarceration rates and costs and led to significant taxpayer savings.

The United States, which has 5 percent of the global population, houses 25 percent of the world's inmates. This high U.S. prison population has been primarily driven by non-violent drug offences.

Mandatory minimum sentencing requirements are responsible for much of the drastic growth in per capita inmate costs, which have increased more than 34 percent in just the last 12 years — from $21,603 to $29,027. By comparison, the U.S. economy grew by 24 percent and the population grew by 11.5 percent during that same period.

These unjust, even nonsensical, penalties now in place at the state and federal level disproportionately harm minority households and communities. Though Democratic pundits and officials push the narrative that Republicans are the party of rich white people, when it comes to finding solutions to fixing our broken criminal justice system, it has been Republicans in the states who are leading the way.

Consider Texas, where the smart-on-crime policy reform movement began in 2003, when the state's Republican legislators passed a law mandating that all non-dealer drug offenders convicted for possession of less than a gram be sentenced to probation instead of jail time.

The Texas prison system, the nation's largest, was then in a tough spot in 2007. That year, the Texas Legislative Budget Board had projected that the state would need more than 17,000 new prison beds by 2012. In response, state legislators passed a $241 million justice reinvestment package that expanded drug courts, intermediate sanctions and other alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders. These reforms allowed the state to avoid the projected expansion, saving Texas taxpayers $2 billion.

Since passing these cost-saving reforms, Texas has seen its incarceration and crime rates each decline more than 10 percent. The Lone Star State now has its lowest prison population in five years, and the lowest crime rate since 1968. Not only was the state able to avoid the new construction costs, it actually closed a prison in 2011 — the first prison closure in Texas history.

In fact, Right on Crime, a national campaign that seeks to take the Texas criminal justice reform model nationwide, is run out of Austin. Recognizing the success of smart-on-crime reforms in Texas, other states have now followed its lead.

South Carolina legislators, for example, passed a legislative package in 2010 that reduced the application of hefty prison terms to those convicted of low-level drug possession. These reforms are projected to save Palmetto State taxpayers up to $175 million over the next five years in avoided prison construction and operating costs.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett (R) and the GOP-controlled state legislature changed state law last year, so that non-violent, low-level misdemeanor offenders now face sanctions other than prison. The reduction in Pennsylvania's prison population is projected to save Keystone State taxpayers approximately $253 million over the next five years.

Also in 2012, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal (R) and the GOP-controlled legislature confronted problems with the state prison system, where population had doubled over the last two decades and was projected to increase by another 8 percent in the next five years. Rather than accept that fate, Georgia lawmakers passed a new law that increases use of probation and accountability courts.

This reform package is expected to allow Georgia to avert all the anticipated prison population growth and even cut the daily population by an additional 1,000 offenders over the next five years. These reforms are projected to reduce recidivism and save Georgia taxpayers at least $264 million.

This is also the case in Louisiana. Governor Bobby Jindal (R) signed state sentencing reforms into law in 2012 that are projected to save Louisiana taxpayers $200 million over the next 10 years. This reform package expands parole eligibility for second-time offenders and permits a waiver of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders — if the prosecutor, defense counsel and judge all agree.

With the highest incarceration rate in the country, Louisiana is a top prospect for further reform in 2014. The Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a New Orleans-based free market think tank, and the Reason Foundation will soon be releasing a comprehensive report on ways in which Louisiana can further reform its criminal justice system in a manner that promotes alternatives to incarceration, cuts down on taxpayer costs, reduces recidivism, and improves safety.

It's nice that the Obama administration now recognizes the value of smart-on-crime reforms implemented by Republican governors and state legislators in recent years. Yet, at the same time that the White House cites Texas and Louisiana as models for criminal justice reform, however, it has been harassing Austin with an unjustified Environmental Protection Agency takeover of its air quality permitting system and a Justice Department challenge to Texas's voter ID law, while also challenging Louisiana's education voucher program that allows children to escape failing schools.

When it comes to fixing America's broken criminal justice system, as with so many other policy challenges facing the U.S., the innovative solutions are coming from the states, those 50 laboratories of democracy, and not from Washington. It's good news that the Obama administration and lawmakers on Capitol Hill have begun to take notice.

(Grover G. Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform. Patrick Gleason is the organization's director of state affairs. Opinions are their own)

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