WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General Eric Holder announced a major shift Monday in federal sentencing policies, targeting long mandatory terms that he said have flooded the nation’s prisons with low-level drug offenders and diverted crime-fighting dollars that could be far better spent.
If Holder’s policies are implemented aggressively, they could mark one of the most significant changes in the way the federal criminal justice system handles drug cases since the government declared a war on drugs in the 1980s.
As a first step, Holder has instructed federal prosecutors to stop charging many nonviolent drug defendants with offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences. His next step will be working with a bipartisan group in Congress to give judges greater discretion in sentencing.
“We will start by fundamentally rethinking the notion of mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes,” Holder told the American Bar Association in San Francisco.
There are currently more than 219,000 federal inmates, and the prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity. Holder said the prison population “has grown at an astonishing rate — by almost 800 percent” since 1980. Almost half the inmates are serving time for drug-related crimes.
Holder said he also wants to 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.
The speech drew widespread praise, including from some of the people Holder will need most — Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he is encouraged by the Obama administration’s view that mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders promote injustice and do not serve public safety. Paul and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., have introduced legislation to grant federal judges greater flexibility in sentencing. Leahy commended Holder for his efforts on the issue and said the judiciary committee will hold a hearing on the bill next month.