In a speech on Monday before the American Bar Association, Attorney General Eric Holder called for major reform in the federal criminal justice system and the way it prosecutes drug offenders.
Holder’s speech specifically tackled the mandatory minimum sentencing policies that the government has long used when condemning drug offenders — even those considered “low-level” and “nonviolent.”
“Certain low-level, non-violent 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,” Holder explained.
He added: “Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason.”
The Attorney General called attention to the “ineffective” and “unsustainable” “widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels,” one that he notes “imposes a significant economic burden, totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone.”
Further complicating the situation are studies that find that many drug offenders prosecuted with the harsh sentencing are grappling with substance abuse and poverty.
“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,” Holder remarked.
The initiatives, part of Holder’s larger “Smart On Crime” plan, would reserve mandatory minimum sentences for more serious, high-level, and usually violent drug traffickers.
Holder is not the first to comment on the rapidly growing incarceration rate, which has been increasing in no small part due to harsh punishments for low-level criminal offenders that stem from mandatory minimum sentences.
Holder joins Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) on a proposal that would allow judges greater sentencing flexibility in cases that would normally use mandatory minimum prison terms.