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'Mandatory minimum' sentences to end for many drug offenders

Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. plans to announce a federal policy shift to reduce penalties for low-level, nonviolent offenders and to ease prison overcrowding.

August 11, 2013|By David G. Savage
  • Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. planned to announce Monday that federal prosecutors would no longer seek mandatory minimum sentences for many low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.
Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. planned to announce Monday that federal prosecutors… (Brendan Smialowski / AFP-Getty…)

SAN FRANCISCO — 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.

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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.

How big a role mass incarceration has played in cutting crime rates remains a hotly debated topic among criminal justice experts. But there's no disagreement that mandatory minimum sentences helped cause explosive growth in prison populations. At the federal level, nearly half of the 219,000 inmates are serving time for drug-related crimes.

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"While the entire U.S. [prison] population has increased by about a third since 1980, the federal population has grown at an astonishing rate — by almost 800%," Holder's speech says. "It's still growing, despite the fact that federal prisons are operating at nearly 40% above capacity. Even though this country comprises just 5% of the world's population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world's prisoners."

Under the new federal policy, which stems from a review Holder ordered this year, U.S. attorneys will no longer bring charges that include lengthy mandatory minimum prison terms in cases of "low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels," Holder planned to announce.

Those low-level offenders instead "will be charged with offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct."

Meting out long sentences to low-level criminals "breeds disrespect for the system" and does not serve public safety, the speech says.

In addition, according to the remarks, the federal Bureau of Prisons will revise its guidelines to allow the early release of more inmates who are elderly or who seek "compassionate release" for medical reasons.

The department is also looking into new ways to identify drug offenders who can be sent to drug treatment or required to do community service as an alternative to prison.

"Clearly, these strategies can work," Holder's speech says, citing recent efforts in Texas, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Hawaii. "They've attracted overwhelming, bipartisan support in 'red states' as well as 'blue states.' And it's past time for others to take notice."

david.savage@latimes.com

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