U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in San Francisco today announced a change in federal prosecution policy that will reduce lengthy prison sentences for low-level drug offenders and free up more resources for the prosecution and punishment of violent criminals.
The policy change was one of a series of criminal justice system reforms Holder outlined in a speech before the American Bar Association this morning.
“It is time to take bold steps to reform and strengthen America’s criminal justice system,” Holder told the ABA’s House of Delegates at a meeting at Moscone Center West.
“We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation. Our system is in too many respects broken,” Holder said.
Among other problems, Holder told the attorneys, “Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.”
Holder said mandatory lengthy prison sentences for certain crimes, such as low-level drug offenses, serve to exacerbate instead of alleviate cycles of poverty and criminality, and divert scarce resources from the punishment of more serious crimes.
He said he is directing the nation’s 93 U.S. attorneys, who serve as regional federal prosecutors, to change the way they charge drug crimes.
In some cases, prosecutors will no longer specify amounts of drugs when they obtain indictments from federal grand jury. That change will mean that mandatory minimum sentences of five or 10 years will not automatically apply, and judges and prosecutors will have more flexibility to select appropriate sentences, Holder said.
The change would apply to drug defendants who haven’t committed violent crimes and are not tied to gangs.
“By reserving the most severe penalties for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers, we can better promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation, while making our expenditures smarter and more productive,” Holder said.
The attorney general said that almost half of the nation’s 219,000 federal prisoners are serving terms for drug-related offenses.
Holder said he has also ordered expansions in Department of Justice policy for the early release of elderly prisoners who did not commit violent crimes and inmates who can be given compassionate release for medical reasons.
The attorney general also called for more use of drug diversion programs and more federal aid to community policing services and local anti-violence programs.
He said he hopes states will adopt similar policies.
The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the planet’s prisoners, Holder told the delegates.
“It’s clear, at a basic level, that 20th century criminal justice solutions are not adequate to overcome our 21st century challenges,” he said.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News