Justice Department to drop some mandatory drug sentences

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Orlando July 16, 2013. REUTERS/David Manning
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will outline the Justice Department’s plan during a San Francisco speech. Credit: Reuters

The Justice Department plans to change how it prosecutes some non-violent drug offenders, ending a policy of mandatory minimum prison sentences, in an overhaul of federal prison policy that Attorney General Eric Holder will unveil on Monday.

Holder will outline the status of a broad, ongoing project intended to improve Justice Department sentencing policies across the country in a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco.

“I have mandated a modification of the Justice Department’s charging policies so that certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels, will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences,” Holder said in remarks prepared for delivery at the conference.

The United States imprisons a higher percentage of its population than other large countries, mostly because of anti-drug laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s.

The laws were politically popular at the time when U.S. crime rates were soaring, and politicians from Republican President Ronald Reagan to Democratic President Bill Clinton championed big spending increases to attack criminal gangs and drug traffickers.

President Barack Obama’s administration is betting that support has eroded because of the financial and social costs of keeping people in prison.

“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no good law enforcement reason,” Holder said.

Justice Department staff have been studying changes since the beginning of the year, about the time that Holder agreed to stay on as the chief U.S. law enforcement official into Obama’s second term.

The potentially far-reaching overhaul is also expected to include the creation of local guidelines to determine if cases should be subject to federal charges, and an updated plan for release of some federal prison inmates “facing extraordinary or compelling circumstances” but posing no public threat.

Some changes Holder supports — such as giving federal judges the leeway to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses — would require changes in the law.


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