Holder Backs Shorter Terms for Nonviolent Drug Offenders

Attorney General Eric Holder endorsed proposed changes to U.S. sentencing guidelines that would reduce the average prison term of a nonviolent drug offender by about 11 months.

The proposal by the U.S. Sentencing Commission would affect about 70 percent of all drug cases brought by federal prosecutors and reduce the prison population by about 3 percent, or 6,500 inmates, in five years.

“Certain types of cases result in too many Americans going to prison for too long, and at times for no truly good public safety reason,” Holder said in testimony before the commission today.

The Obama administration has sought shorter sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, a concept backed by Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, and other U.S. lawmakers. Holder announced last year that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders would no longer be charged with federal crimes that impose strict mandatory minimum sentences.

In December, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of eight people convicted and sentenced on crack cocaine offenses, saying their prison terms were too long as a result of disparities in the law.

The commission is holding a public hearing near the end of a 60-day comment period on proposed amendments to sentencing guidelines that it issued in January. The guidelines help judges determine proper and fair sentences.

In his testimony, Holder argued that reductions in sentencing ranges for nonviolent drug offenders are needed because the “over-reliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable, it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”

Federal and state governments spent $80 billion on incarceration in 2010, the attorney general will say.

Holder has also pressed states to restore voting rights to felons who have served their sentences, saying that laws barring ex-offenders from voting disproportionately affect minorities.

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