Federal prison populations are dropping for the first time in four decades, and will continue to drop over the next two years, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said yesterday.


Speaking at a conference held by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, Holder said the trend underlines the "holistic approach" he favors to reducing mass incarceration, which includes strategies ranging from community policing to rethinking sentencing.


"The United States will never be able to prosecute or incarcerate its way to being a safer nation," said Holder. The Department of Justice (DOJ) expects the prison population to drop by over 2,000 inmates in the next twelve months and by 10,000 inmates the following year. Nevertheless, although that number is equivalent to the population of six federal prisons, the government has no plans to close any facilities, because they are already at over-capacity, Holder said.


Spending on the Federal Bureau of Prisons takes approximately one-third of the DOJ’s budget, he admitted.


Holder also announced grants to pursue various "smart on crime" initiatives developed by the DOJ.


Five states – Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio, and Oregon – received justice reinvestment grants to use towards pre-trial reforms. A second group of grants at $1m each was awarded under the Second Chance Act to help reduce recidivism in Georgia (again), Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Vermont.


His keynote speech capped a day of expert panels focusing on what law enforcement can do to reduce mass incarceration in the United States.


Speakers at the earlier sessions, including Lanny Breuer, former Assistant Attorney General, Criminal Division, DOJ; Paul Fishman, U.S. Attorney District of New Jersey; and Timothy Purdon, U.S. Attorney District of North Dakota, spoke about different ways federal prosecutors can reduce mass incarceration.


Their conversation came on the heels of the release of the Brennan Center’s new report, "Federal Prosecution for the 21st Century", which recommends refocusing prosecutor success on reducing violent and serious crime, reducing prison populations and reducing recidivism.


While the prosecutors spoke about efforts to orient their offices towards this different approach, they also discussed the challenges they find in the field, including mental health and addiction issues, and finding available resources for defendants.


"In rural America access to treatment centers is so much worse than in urban areas," said Purdon. " It’s a real challenge finding mental health treatment."


State law enforcement leaders, including Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler, and Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, led the next panel, discussing community programs that have worked to reduce arrests and subsequent incarceration.


Gansler spoke about community prosecution, which dedicates a prosecutor to working on all the crimes in a specific county or neighborhood. This approach creates connections with the community and law enforcement as the prosecutors visit police precincts, schools, churches and community organizations.


"We talk to the people on the streets and find out what actually works," said Gansler.


The State’s Attorney office funded a community prosecutor office in Montgomery County, Maryland and now this county of over 1 million people has homicide rates in the teens, he said.


District Attorney Vance spoke about community programs, including keeping gyms open later in New York, which helps reduce crime.


The final panel, which included Gene Sperling, former director, White House National Economic Council; Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress; and Jeremy Travis, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, focused how funding including state and federal budgets can be used to reduce crime.


Since criminal justice issues are mostly funded by local budgets, the panels discussed ways in which the federal government can be helpful.


"Can the federal government be equally muscular in helping states in keeping mass incarceration down?" asked Travis.


Robert Greenberg, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, discussed the success of federal performance- based bonuses in helping states target programs and bolster their performance.


Other options included social impact bonds, in which public entities work with private groups to fund a program, and increasing economic research in the criminal justice arena.

Adam Lee Nemann
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Trial and Defense Attorney, Adjunct Professor of Law at Capital University, founder of Nemann Law Offices

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