Attorney General Eric Holder is taking credit for the first drop in the federal prison population in a generation, citing his "Smart on Crime" initiative that seeks to moderate prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
Holder, at a speech in New York, announced that at the end of fiscal year 2014 next week, the United States will show a drop of about 4,800 federal prisoners to 215,000 inmates. The figure for fiscal 2013 was 218,298 and the new figure marks the first drop over the course of a fiscal year since 1980.
Crime waves in many cities in the 1970s and 1980s prompted federal and state lawmakers to enact tough-on-crime laws, increasing sentences for crack cocaine and other drugs and for habitual offenders.
In the past year, Holder has led efforts to amend sentence guidelines for nonviolent drug crimes, including for prisoners already serving their sentences.
Holder said Justice Department estimates project a continued decrease in federal prison populations, including 2,200 fewer by fiscal 2015 and another possible 10,000 drop in fiscal 2016.
"We can all be proud of the progress that's been made at reducing the crime rate over the past couple of decades -- thanks to the tireless work of prosecutors and the bravery of law enforcement officials across America. But statistics have shown -- and all of us have seen -- that high incarceration rates and longer-than-necessary prison terms have not played a significant role in materially improving public safety, reducing crime, or strengthening communities," Holder said in prepared remarks. "In fact, the opposite is often true."
He said new research shows that states with the most significant reductions in crime also were states with reduced prison populations.
Holder said part of the reason for sentencing changes is to save money from not having to build more prisons, with the federal prison system already 30% over capacity.
It's the cost-savings part of the strategy that has won support from conservative legislatures and some Republicans in Congress. Reducing federal sentences for nonviolent crimes also is now pitched by some conservatives as a way to take away power from the federal government and return it to the states.