US Attorney General Eric Holder is calling for major changes to the US criminal justice system that would scale back the use of harsh prison sentences for certain drug-related crimes, divert people convicted of low-level offenses to drug treatment and community service programs and expand a prison program to allow for release of some elderly, non-violent offenders.
In remarks prepared for delivery yesterday to the American Bar Association in San Francisco, Holder said he is mandating a change to US Department of Justice policy so that low-level, non-violent drug offenders with no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels would not be charged with offenses that impose mandatory minimum sentences.
Mandatory minimum prison sentences — a product of the US government’s war on drugs in the 1980s — limit the discretion of judges to impose shorter prison sentences.
Under the altered policy, the attorney general said defendants would instead be charged with offenses for which accompanying sentences “are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins.”
US federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity and hold more than 219,000 inmates — with almost half of them serving time for drug-related crimes and many of them with substance use disorders.
In addition, between 9 million and 10 million prisoners go through local jails each year.
Holder praised state and local law enforcement officials for already instituting some of the types of changes he says must be made at the federal level.
Aggressive enforcement of federal criminal laws is necessary, but “we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation,” Holder said.
“Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem, rather than alleviate it,” he added.
“We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate — not merely to convict, warehouse and forget,” the attorney general said.
Holder said mandatory minimum sentences “breed disrespect for the system. When applied indiscriminately, they do not serve public safety. They have had a disabling effect on communities. And they are ultimately counterproductive.”
US Senate legislation has been introduced, aimed at giving federal judges more discretion in applying mandatory minimums to certain drug offenders.
Holder said new approaches — which he is calling the “Smart On Crime” initiative — are the result of a Justice Department review he launched early this year.
The attorney general said some issues are best handled at the state or local level and said he has directed federal prosecutors across the country to develop locally tailored guidelines for determining when federal charges should be filed, and when they should not.
The attorney general said 17 states have directed money away from prison construction and toward programs and services such as treatment and supervision that are designed to reduce the problem of repeat offenders.