The High Cost of Outdated Crime Policy

On Friday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he had sent a memo to all federal prosecutors on changing the directives of charging and sentencing policy. Sessions instructed his employees to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” and that they must also “disclose to the sentencing court all facts that impact the sentencing guidelines or mandatory minimum sentences.” This is a reversal of the previous administration’s push to moderate the criminal justice system, especially on drug policy.

This policy shift comes at a time when more than a third of drug offenders in federal prison had either minimal criminal history or none at all—the lowest out of all criminal history categories. Drug trafficking offenses account for more than 2/3 of the charges that are subject to mandatory minimum sentences.

Representative Justin Amash (R-MI) tweeted that the new policy is unjust, ineffective and costly. In the other chamber, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) also criticized Sessions in a press release.

Beyond political questions, fiscal conservatives of all stripes are right to be paying close attention to new policies on criminal justice. $51 billion is spent on the war on drugs every year, which added up to 1.5 million arrests in 2015, of which over 80% were for sole possession of drugs, rather than distribution. In other words, the taxpayers pay a high price for policies that largely target nonviolent criminals.

There will always be a range of opinions on criminal justice policy in the United States, but costs will continue to mount if the status quo is maintained. That’s why leaders across the aisle have supported smart reforms in recent years, which have the potential to modernize the system and save serious money – an agenda that both Democrats and Republicans can get behind.

Note: This piece was originally posted at the Institute to Reduce Spending.