Inmates at Orleans Parish Prison

Inmates at Orleans Parish Prison

Last week, the Justice Department announced a plan to reform the U.S. prison system. According to NPR, Attorney General Eric Holder spoke about new rules the Obama administration is creating that would provide clemency for some non-violent drug offenders.

In an online video statement, Holder said the White House wants to “restore a degree of justice, fairness, and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety.” The new rules would reportedly allow inmates to apply for clemency, and the administration is looking to provide such clemency for inmates with clean records who have no ties to gangs and have already served decades behind bars.

The New York Times expands on NPR’s analysis, adding that Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said the administration would extend clemency considerations to “nonviolent felons who have served at least 10 years in prison and who would have received significantly lower prison terms if convicted under today’s more lenient sentencing laws.”

Although the analysis of the issue at NPR asserts that thousands of additional inmates could be released from prison under the proposed system, the New York Times says civil rights advocates expect the number to be much lower — in the hundreds. Applications for clemency take a long time to process. So, the system may not act swiftly.

It is also unlikely that the reforms will make much of an impact in reducing the percentage of Americans who are currently serving prison sentences. The release of hundreds, even thousands, of prisoners is barely a drop in the bucket of the number of prisoners currently incarcerated in the U.S. Nearly one in 100 people are incarcerated in the entire nation, and approximately 216,000 inmates fill federal prisons. State prisons hold approximately two million inmates, and since the administration’s policy only targets federal prisoners, the residents of state facilities will not see relief as a result of the reform.

Although talk in Washington is arguably making a break from that which fueled the war on drugs in the 80s and 90s, the current reform appears to be more symbolic of the rhetorical shift rather than substantial action that solidifies a change in national policy. The administration may release a number of offenders under the new rules, but the overall process of clemency will continue to work slowly and will not pare down prison populations to manageable levels. The nation needs reform in policy and action to lessen the overwhelming number of inmates state and federal prisons must handle, and although the latest Justice Department announcement suggests that things are moving the the right direction, the current administration and those that succeed it must do much more.

Image courtesy of Bart Everson via Wikimedia Commons