Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black: The writer that inspired the Netflix hit was incarcerated in a Danbury prison. (Courtesy Netflix / August 21, 2013)

Holy Brainstorms Batman! The feds finally figured out the War on Drugs is a bust that's costing us billions, hasn't stopped the dopers, and is filling prisons with people who shouldn't be there!

That was the underlying message of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's address last week calling for dramatic revisions of federal prosecution and sentencing guidelines for nonviolent and low-level drug offenders.

And the trigger was apparently the same thing that drove Connecticut and other states to change their sentencing policies years ago: massive prison overcrowding because of the vast numbers of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.

"Connecticut's ahead of the curve right now," says David McGuire, a lawyer with this state's American Civil Liberties Union chapter. "We're one of the leading states in terms of alternatives to incarceration."

The only real surprise in all this is that it took the feds so long to recognize the realities of a broken system that's clogged our hugely expensive prisons, primarily by filling them to overflowing with blacks and Hispanics. Connecticut began making changes to its sentencing policies more than a decade ago, and has trimmed its inmate population by more than 11 percent since 2003.

In July 2003, we had 19,121 inmates locked up in Connecticut prisons, according to state Department of Corrections reports. This July, the prisoner count was 16,986.

While the number of white prisoners in Connecticut hasn't changed much from a decade ago, the African-American inmate population plummeted by 16.8 percent and there are now 14.2 percent fewer Hispanics in state prisons. (Violent crime, in case you were wondering, has been dropping in Connecticut and the rest of the U.S. since the early 1990s.)

The difference between Connecticut's experience and the federal system, with its insanely rigid mass of mandatory minimum sentences, is astonishing.

Holder noted in his San Francisco speech that the federal prison population has grown by a mind-boggling 800 percent since 1980, and that the system is now 40 percent over capacity. "Even though this country comprises just 5 percent of the world's population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world's prisoners," Holder pointed out.

The impact of that sort of craziness is being felt here in Connecticut. The feds were planning to transfer 1,115 women inmates from the federal prison in Danbury to an isolated Alabama prison — more than 1,000 miles away — to make room for some of the male inmates now jammed into facilities around the U.S.

U.S. Senators from Connecticut and New York protested that would be unfair to the female inmates and their families, most of whom live in the Northeast.

The Danbury prison and its inmates also happen to be the focus of the popular Netflix show, "Orange Is the New Black." The author of the book that became the show, Piper Kerman, was sent to Danbury for 11 months on a drug crime charge and pointed out in a New York Times op-ed piece that the women in that facility are the mothers of more than 700 kids.

According to U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., the U.S. Bureau of Prisons has now put that proposed inmate transfer on hold, temporarily.

The harsh reality of this situation is that the percentage of Americans using illegal drugs hasn't really changed since the War on Drugs was launched 40 years ago. More drugs are coming into the U.S. now. Prices for dope have dropped. Mexico is locked in a bloody civil war with drug gangsters. U.S. states are decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana and medical pot, leaving federal authorities in a quandary.

"Yeah, I think they've figured that out," Moira Buckley, president of the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, says of the federal government's long-delayed recognition that the War on Drugs has failed.

Buckley and other defense lawyers are waiting to see the impact of Holder's policy statement and an upcoming review of federal sentencing guidelines by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

"I am curious to see how our U.S. attorney [in Connecticut] handles that," says Buckley. If Holder's new policies give federal prosecutors more leeway in charging low-level drug offenders, Buckley adds, it could make a big difference.

In Connecticut, prosecutors have far more discretion than the feds to decide what charges to file against someone picked up for drug crimes. Nonetheless this state still has 64 different mandatory minimum sentences on the books, which means a conviction in such cases leaves judges no choice but to send the convicted person to prison for years.

"I hear from [state] judges all the time, 'Don't tie our hands with mandatory minimums, give us some flexibility,' " says Gerald M. Fox III, D-Stamford, co-chair of the General Assembly's Judiciary Committee.

Right now, for instance, you get caught in a "drug-free zone" (within 1,500 feet of a school, day care center or public housing project) with illegal drugs or drug paraphernalia and you could get hammered with a one-to-three year minimum sentence.