Attorney General Eric Holder is calling for major changes to the nation’s criminal justice system.
US Attorney General Eric Holder plans to announce sweeping changes to federal drug enforcement and Justice Department sentencing policies while speaking before the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates in San Francisco on Monday.
According to excerpts of his prepared remarks released by the Justice Department, Holder is expected to say:
I have mandated a modification of the Justice Department’s charging policies so that certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels, will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences.
Widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable. It imposes a significant economic burden, totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone.
By targeting the most serious offenses, prosecuting the most dangerous criminals, directing assistance to crime hot spots, and pursuing new ways to promote public safety, deterrence, efficiency and fairness, we can become both smarter and tougher on crime.
One of the goals Holder has for this new mandate is to move away from mandatory minimum sentences that are a product of the government’s war on drugs from the 1980’s. The mandatory minimum sentence model of justice limits the “discretion of judges to impose shorter prison sentences.”
According to the Associated Press:
Under the altered policy, the attorney general said defendants will instead be charged with offenses for which accompanying sentences “are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins.”
Holder said mandatory minimum sentences “breed disrespect for the system. When applied indiscriminately, they do not serve public safety. They have had a disabling effect on communities. And they are ultimately counterproductive.”
Aggressive enforcement of federal criminal laws is necessary, but “we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation,” Holder said. “Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem, rather than alleviate it.”
“We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate — not merely to convict, warehouse and forget,” said the attorney general.
According to the attorney general, 17 states have already taken the initiative and have “directed money away from prison construction and toward programs and services such as treatment and supervision that are designed to reduce the problem of repeat offenders.” Holder also praised both state and local law enforcement officials for “already instituting” many of the types of changes that he believes much also be made at a federal level. He also asserts that “some issues are best handled at the state or local level,” and he has directed federal prosecutors across the US to “develop locally tailored guidelines for determining when federal charges should be filed, and when they should not.”
Kentucky has already passes legislation that reserves prison beds for the “most serious offenders,” and refocuses their resources on “community supervision.” According to Holder, Kentucky is “projected to reduce its prison population by more than 3,000 over the next 10 years, saving more than $400 million.” He also pointed out that:
[I]nvestments in drug treatment in Texas for non-violent offenders and changes to parole policies … brought about a reduction in the prison population of more than 5,000 inmates last year. [S]imilar efforts helped Arkansas reduce its prison population by more than 1,400.
He also pointed to Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Hawaii as states that have improved public safety while preserving limited resources.
Holder also said that the attorney general’s office and the Justice Department are working on “expanding a policy for considering compassionate release for inmates facing extraordinary or compelling circumstances, and who pose no threat to the public.” He said, “the expansion will include elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes and who have served significant portions of their sentences.”
Photo: AP File/Carolyn Kaster