Today, Attorney General Eric Holder is announcing a pretty big change in the way the Justice Department prosecutes minor drug cases. The new approach is meant to send fewer low-level, nonviolent drug users to federal prison, part of a broader effort to reduce America’s bulging prison population.
In a watershed speech at the American Bar Association in San Francisco, Holder is expected to curb severe drug-related minimum mandatory sentences, a controversial law that has contributed to a startling statistic: The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. Although the US only accounts for 5% of the world’s population, we are home to 25% of its prisoners.
At the federal level, more than 219,000 inmates are currently behind bars — nearly half for drug-related crimes — and the prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above their official capacity.
Holder favors diverting people convicted of low-level offenses to drug treatment and community service programs and expanding a prison program to allow for the release of some elderly, non-violent offenders.
“We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate — not merely to convict, warehouse and forget,” Holder says in the speech he’s scheduled to deliver Monday.
In one important change, the attorney general is altering Justice Department policy so that low-level, non-violent drug offenders with no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels won’t be charged with offenses that impose mandatory minimum sentences.
Amid a rise in crime rates in the 70’s and 80’s, state and federal lawmakers began passing a series of “tough on crime” laws, including mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession.
Those laws impose five-year prison terms for first-time offenders caught with certain amounts of drugs, such as 100 grams of heroin, 500 grams of cocaine powder or 100 kilograms of marijuana. Higher amounts bring 10-year mandatory sentences.
Under the altered policy, the attorney general said defendants will 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.”
Driven in part by a need to save money, several conservative-leaning states like Texas and Arkansas have experimented with finding ways to incarcerate fewer low-level drug offenders including reduced sentencing, early release of elderly or well-behaved prisoners, and improving job training and re-entry programs.
“While the federal prison system has continued to slowly expand, significant state-level reductions have led to three consecutive years of decline in America’s overall prison population — including, in 2012, the largest drop ever experienced in a single year,” Mr. Holder’s speech says. “Clearly, these strategies can work. They’ve attracted overwhelming, bipartisan support in ‘red states’ as well as ‘blue states.’ And it’s past time for others to take notice.”
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