Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech offered more symbolism than substance.

Many of the reforms Mr. Holder announced actually have limited impact. The changes in policies relating to mandatory minimum drug sentences that Mr Holder. has ordered, for example, apply only to “low-level, non-violent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels.”

This will have an impact on only a handful of cases because lower-level offenders typically get caught in the federal system when they are tied to such gangs.

Diversion programs, which send non-violent drug offenders to treatment rather than prison, are likewise worthy of the praise Mr. Holder has lavished on them. However, they already exist in every sizable American jurisdiction and have received similar praise over the past quarter century.

Even prisoner re-entry, another topic Mr. Holder touched on, is hardly new. Officials under President George W. Bush paid attention to this subject at the highest levels, and the Obama administration has mostly continued its programs.

Nevertheless, the speech was still important because it shows how much the public conversation about crime has changed. Between the late 1950s and early 1990s, crime and fear of crime dominated American politics.

Since the 1990s, however, crime has declined (gross rates are now lower than those in the United Kingdom), and the issue has slipped so far down in priority that neither President Obama nor presidential candidate Mitt Romney so much as mentioned it during their debates.

This shift allows officials like Mr. Holder to take a more nuanced approach towards crime and give public speeches that emphasize a view other than “lock ’em up.”

And that, if nothing else, shows that America’s public policies relating to crime are getting smarter.

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