Holder Calls for Scaled-back Mandatory Minimum Sentences
WASHINGTON (CNN) — The Justice Department will no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for “certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders,” Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday.
Holder told the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates in San Francisco that the United States should not stop being tough on crime, but he noted that while the nation is “coldly efficient” in jailing criminals, it “cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate” its way to becoming safer.
He announced that certain “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.”
They now “will be charged with offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins.”
Lessening the use of mandatory minimums — sentences that require a “one-size-fits-all” punishment for those convicted of federal and state crimes — could mark the end of the tough-on-crime era that began with strict anti-drug laws in the 1970s and accelerated with mandatory minimum prison sentences and so-called three-strikes laws.
Holder labeled these types of sentences “draconian,” “counterproductive” and “excessive.”
The attorney general also linked the change to skyrocketing state budgets.
Legislation to lessen the use of mandatory minimums, Holder said would ultimately save the United States billions of dollars.
“Although incarceration has a role to play in our justice system, 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 — and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate,” Holder said.
In 2009, incarceration cost federal, state and local budgets $83 billion.
The administration hopes the move will also address racial disparities in the U.S. prison population, of which ethnic minorities are a majority.
He said the nation “must confront the reality” that once “people of color” are in the criminal justice system, they “often face harsher punishments than their peers.” He called it “unacceptable,” “shameful” and “unworthy” of the U.S. legal tradition.
President Barack Obama nodded to some of the issues in remarks after the Trayvon Martin verdict last month, giving voice to African-American concerns that “there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.”
Although Obama administration officials say the changes they are pursuing will not require congressional approval, some unlikely pairs of lawmakers have come together to push criminal justice changes.
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky have worked together to allow judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences when circumstances merit. Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois and Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah have undertaken similar efforts.
In recent years, there has been a rise in support among conservatives for reforms to the criminal justice system. While more flexible approaches to crimes have long held support among liberal Democrats, fear of being tarred as weak on crime by Republican opponents has long caused moderate Democrats, particularly those running for president, to avoid the issue.
In addition to changes to mandatory minimums, Holder called for expanding the use of “compassionate release” from jail of those who “pose no threat to the public.”
The American Civil Liberties Union praised Holder’s approach Monday, calling it an important step toward ending federal prison overcrowding and creating a “fairer criminal justice system.”
Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office, said in a news release, however, that although Holder’s announcement “is an important first step,” Congress also must act to change laws that “lock up hundreds of thousands of Americans unfairly and unnecessarily.”
CNN’s Carol Cratty and Jessica Yellin contributed to this report.
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