U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has ordered changes across the Justice Department to eliminate what he called “draconian” mandatory minimum sentences for certain non-violent drug offenders.
Holder, in a speech today in San Francisco, laid out proposals to reduce the U.S. prison population. He questioned the effectiveness of the more than 40-year-long “war on drugs” and announced support for bipartisan efforts in Congress and at the state level to move away lengthy sentences in favor of other punishments.
“We must face the reality that, as it stands, our system is in too many respects broken,” Holder said at the American Bar Association’s annual conference. “The course we are on is far from sustainable.”
The Justice Department has been working on a review of the U.S. criminal justice system at Holder’s direction since the start of this year. Lawmakers in Congress have sought to identify ways to reduce a prison system that held more than 1.5 million people in 2012 at federal, state and local levels.
Speaking in April to the National Action Network, a civil rights advocacy group, Holder contended that mandatory minimum sentences often “breed disrespect for the system and are ultimately counterproductive.”
U.S. prosecutors will now sidestep the statutorily required mandatory minimums by charging low-level, nonviolent offenders “with offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct,” Holder says in his prepared remarks.
Senators Richard Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, and Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, introduced a bill this month to give federal judges more discretion in sentencing non-violent drug offenders.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, in March introduced legislation that would give federal judges increased discretion with all federal crimes subject to mandatory minimum penalties, providing authority to use sentencing flexibility under certain conditions.
In the House, lawmakers have put together a task force to investigate and hold hearings on “over-criminalization” in the U.S. and release a report on their findings.
While the total U.S. prison population declined 1.7 percent in 2012 from 2011, the federal prison population increased by approximately 1,500.
Durbin, in a statement today, said that the mandatory minimum laws “played a huge role in the explosion of the U.S. prison population.”
In a Senate floor speech last month, Leahy attributed the significant growth of the prison population over the past two decades -- something that cost more than $80 billion in 2010 -- in part to the proliferation of mandatory minimum sentences. The federal prison population has grown by almost 800 percent since 1980 and currently stands at more than 219,000.
“This one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing never made us safer, but it has cost us plenty,” Leahy said.
Holder cited both bills in his remarks today, saying they would “save our country billions of dollars” and he would work with lawmakers to “refine and advance” the legislation.
Holder’s focus on federal savings comes as all branches of government are facing pressure from the mandated automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration, that began in March.
The Justice Department’s annual report to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, released in July, pointed to the combined effects that growing prison costs and sequestration would have on the criminal justice system across the U.S., including fewer federal and state partnerships, diversion programs and investigations.
“If the current spending trajectory continues and we do not reduce the prison population and prison spending, there will continue to be fewer and fewer prosecutors to bring charges, fewer agents to investigate federal crimes,” Jonathan J. Wroblewski, the director of the Office of Policy and Legislation in the department’s criminal division, said in a July 11 letter to the commission.
Holder has directed U.S. Attorney’s offices across the country to develop new guidelines for determining when federal charges should be filed, with a focus on targeting “the most serious offenses” and “the most dangerous criminals.”
The Justice Department is in the process of identifying and implementing new diversion programs -- an effort to find alternatives -- such as drug treatment and community service -- designed to halt the flow of individuals into the prison population.
Holder is seeking to capitalize on state-level efforts in places such as Kentucky, Texas and Arkansas -- that regularly vote against Democrats -- for support and ideas, according to his remarks.
The Justice Department will expand the federal compassionate release framework, something that began earlier this year when the Bureau of Prisons changed the criteria for non-violent inmates facing serious medical problems. The framework will now be expanded for elderly inmates who didn’t commit violent crimes and have served significant portions of their sentences.
“The bottom line is that, while the aggressive enforcement of federal criminal statutes remains necessary, we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation,” Holder said.