Excerpted from The Los Angeles Times: Federal prosecutors will no longer seek long, “mandatory minimum” sentences for many low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, under a major shift in policy aimed at turning around decades of explosive growth in the federal prison population, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. planned to announce Monday.
“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no good law enforcement reason,” Holder planned to tell the American Bar Assn. meeting here, according to an advance text of his remarks. “While the aggressive enforcement of federal criminal statutes remains necessary, we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.”
Under the new policy, prosecutors would send fewer drug offenders to federal prison for long terms and send more of them to drug treatment and community service. A Justice Department spokesman said officials had no estimate of how many future prosecutions would be affected.
The change responds to a major goal of civil rights groups, which say long prison sentences have disproportionately hurt low-income and minority communities.
In his speech, Holder endorses that point of view, saying that “a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities” and that “many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem, rather than alleviate it.”
He also notes that prominent conservatives have embraced the idea of cutting sentences and reducing prison populations.
Conservative groups with leaders including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have called for changing U.S. crime and prison policies, Justice Department officials note. Support from conservatives has come in part because of the enormous bite that prison costs take out of state budgets.
Beginning with the “war on drugs” of the 1980s, many states and the federal government adopted laws that required judges to impose long sentences on anyone caught with certain amounts of illegal drugs, regardless of the circumstances.
More recently, as crime rates have dropped sharply in most major urban areas, public demand for lengthy prison terms has waned, and both liberal and conservative states have changed their laws to incarcerate fewer people.
Advocates of change point to Texas and New York as leaders in the effort to reduce sentences, particularly for lower-level drug crimes. Although California has modified its strict “three strikes” sentencing laws, the state has made fewer changes than many others. The state’s prisons currently are under court order to reduce the number of inmates by nearly 10,000 this year to cope with overcrowding.
Congress has moved more slowly than state legislatures. But conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats have both called for pulling back on the use of mandatory minimum prison terms.
In his speech, Holder plans to cite proposals by Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), two of the Senate’s leading liberals, and Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), two tea party favorites, that would give judges more leeway in sentencing drug offenders.
“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 says in his speech.