Attorney General Eric Holder's comments last week that the federal government will no longer "impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences" for low-level drug offenses is rightfully being heralded by groups across the political spectrum.
Holder's comments are a step towards dismantling the costly and disastrous war on drugs that has contributed to the United States becoming the most incarcerated place in the world and done next to nothing to reduce drug abuse.
Since the onset of the war on drugs, prisons have also become big business. For-profit prison corporations like Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group now bring in billions of dollars in annual revenue and invest millions in campaign contributions and lobbyists to ensure their interests are met.
If the government is serious about reducing the federal prison population, it must end its reliance on for-profit prisons and repeal costly programs that have made immigrants the fastest growing part of the federal prison population. It can start by repealing Operation Streamline and directing U.S. Attorneys to stop prosecuting tens of thousands of immigrants for nothing more than crossing the border.
Operation Streamline is a zero-tolerance program started in 2005 in Del Rio, Texas in which Border Patrol agents refer migrants to the U.S. Attorney's offices to be criminally prosecuted. In the past, immigrants apprehended crossing the border were dealt with almost exclusively within the civil immigration system. Now, immigrants are often charged under one of two federal crimes: unlawful entry of an immigrant, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in custody, or unlawful re-entry of a deported immigrant, a felony punishable by up to 20 years in federal prison.
The results of these prosecutions have been dramatic.For the past four years, more people have been convicted of immigration offenses than any other type of federal offense.
The prosecution of immigrants is also creating severe racial disparities in federal prisons. Latinos now make up more than half of all those sentenced to federal prison despite making up only 16 percent of the country's population, largely because of immigration prosecutions.
What's more, my organization estimated in a report last fall that the federal government now commits over $1.02 billion per year towards sentenced days for the criminal incarceration of migrants.
The private prison industry is one of the biggest beneficiaries of criminal prosecutions of migrants. Lucrative contracts for Bureau of Prisons-contracted "Criminal Alien Requirement" prisons have contributed to record profits for corporations like CCA and GEO Group.
Private prison executives are not shy about the impact of these programs. George Zoley, head of private prison corporation GEO Group said, "The main driver for the growth of new beds at the federal level continues to be the detention and incarceration of criminal aliens."
Of course, Zoley's term "criminal aliens" fails to acknowledge that the majority of those immigrants serving time in GEO's prisons are there for nothing more than crossing the border to reunite with their families or flee poverty.
Attorney General Holder's comments are a critical step towards recognizing that our reliance on mass incarceration does not serve us as a society and must end. However, we can only fulfill this objective by ending Operation Streamline and the war on immigrants as well.