Outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder took to the National Press Club today to share some preliminary data on the success of his "Smart on Crime" initiative, which seeks to curtail the use of harsh mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes.
The numbers are at once impressive and also indicative of the amount of work that remains to be done to bring more balance to current federal drug prosecution policy, particularly when viewed in the context of prior years' data that I dug up from the United States Sentencing Commission.
According to Holder, "between 2013 and 2014, the number of defendants charged with drug trafficking offenses declined by nearly 1,400 individuals – a reduction of more than six percent." While a significant drop, the numbers above show that the decline in drug trafficking offenses began in 2013, when 2,500 fewer defendants were charged than in the prior year. Holder says the decline is primarily due to federal prosecutors turning more cases over to state and local authorities.
Still, the Holder Justice Department can take credit for the recent drop, especially considering that federal drug trafficking charges have either increased or remained essentially flat over the last 20 years.
More significantly, Holder said today that 51 percent of federal drug trafficking offenses carried a mandatory minimum sentence in 2014, down from 64 percent in the prior year. This 20 percent drop represents the lowest level this number has stood at any point in the Sentencing Commission's record.
You can see this in the chart below. One important caveat -- the pre-2014 numbers are the percent of all federal drug crimes carrying a mandatory minimum sentence, while the 2014 number is the percent of federal drug trafficking crimes with a mandatory minimum. Since drug trafficking offenses make up more than 95 percent of of total federal drug offenses, this doesn't change the overall narrative.
Again, this would represent the first significant downward shift in these numbers since at least 1996. On the other hand, the chart shows that more than half of drug offenses are still subject to mandatory minimums. To the extent that judges -- and not federal prosecutors -- should be determining sentences for drug crimes, there's still a lot of work to be done here.
Supporters of mandatory minimums say that they give prosecutors leverage in extracting information and plea deals out of defendants -- if you wave a harsh mandatory sentence at a defendant he'll be more likely to cooperate, or so the thinking goes. But Holder shared data today indicating that cooperation from defendants has remained the same, and that the share of drug trafficking cases ending in a guilty plea have likewise remained constant. "The notion that the Smart on Crime initiative has somehow robbed us of an essential tool is contradicted not only by our history – but by clear and objective facts," he said.
Activists largely applauded the news. In a statement, Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said "we commend Attorney General Eric Holder for stating, once again, that mandatory minimum sentences have no redeeming value as a policy tool. The consensus in both the legal and academic communities is that these overly harsh sentences don't improve public safety, reduce recidivism, or deter would-be offenders."
Overall, the initiative appears to be bearing fruit. Doubtless the pace is much slower than most criminal justice reformers would hope. But given that these new numbers mark the first meaningful shift in these numbers in 20 years, it's clear that the Smart on Crime initiative is a step in the right direction.