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Holder: Some drug offenders shouldn't face mandatory minimum sentences

5:47 AM, Aug 12, 2013   |    comments
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WASHINGTON D.C. -- Attorney General Eric Holder is directing federal prosecutors to change the way they file charges for some drug crimes, to reduce the number of convictions for offenses that carry inflexible, mandatory minimum sentences.

The new policy involves the prosecution of low-level, non-violent drug offenders who have no ties to gangs, cartels or other large-scale organizations. They will be charged with offenses that - like those for most crimes - specify a range of months or years, allowing judges to decide sentence length.

In remarks prepared for delivery Monday to the annual meeting of the American Bar Association's House of Delegates in San Francisco, Holder says the goal is to reserve the most severe penalties for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers.

Though noting that the growth in the U.S. prison population has slowed in recent years, he says, "Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason." Incarceration should be used "to punish, deter and rehabilitate, not merely to convict, warehouse and forget."

Holder has long argued that mandatory minimums are contributing to the fact that the number of inmates in federal prisons has increased by 800 percent since 1980, far faster than the growth of the U.S. population.

Some Republicans, including Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky, have joined Democrats in calling for eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders.

"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," Holder says.

Holder is also directing federal prosecutors to go after the most serious offenses and most dangerous criminals, leaving local and state prosecutors to handle more of the less serious crimes.

Such a move would partially reverse the trend of recent decades toward more federalization of criminal prosecutions and would shift dwindling federal resources toward the highest priorities. But local officials also face budget cuts of their own and may not welcome such a move.

Nonetheless, Holder says, "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."

In his prepared remarks, he also urges prison officials to offer more frequent compassionate release for older, non-violent offenders with compelling circumstances. And he recommends more use of prison diversion programs, such as drug treatment or community service.

NBC News

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