U.S. attorney general Eric Holder proposes changes in criminal justice system

Attorney General Eric Holder photographed during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Tuesday, May 14, 2013.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Attorney General Eric Holder photographed during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Tuesday, May 14, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — With the U.S. facing massive overcrowding in its prisons, Attorney General Eric Holder called Monday for major changes to the nation's criminal justice system that would scale back the use of harsh sentences for certain drug-related crimes.

In remarks to the American Bar Association in San Francisco, Holder said he also favors diverting people convicted of low-level offenses to drug treatment and community service programs and expanding a prison program to allow for release of some elderly, non-violent offenders.

"We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate — not merely to convict, warehouse and forget," Holder said.

In one important change, the attorney general said he's altering Justice Department policy so that low-level, non-violent drug offenders with no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels won't be charged with offenses that impose mandatory minimum sentences.

Mandatory minimum prison sentences, a product of the government's war on drugs that began in the 1980s, limit the discretion of judges to impose shorter prison sentences.

Under the changed policy, the attorney general said defendants will 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's comments drew bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he is encouraged by the Obama administration's view that mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders promote injustice and do not serve public safety. Paul and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., introduced legislation in March to grant federal judges greater flexibility in sentencing all crimes where a mandatory minimum punishment is considered unnecessary. Leahy commended Holder for his efforts on the issue and said his committee will hold a hearing on the bill next month.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said he looks forward to working on the issue with Holder and senators on both sides of the aisle who support change.

The impact of Holder's initiative on mandatory minimum sentences could be significant, says Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a non-profit group involved in research and policy reform of the criminal justice system.

There are roughly 25,000 drug convictions in federal court each year and 45 percent of those are for lower-level offenses such as street level dealers and couriers and people who deliver drugs, said Mauer.

The unanswered question is how each of the 94 U.S. Attorneys offices around the country will implement changes, given the authority of prosecutors to exercise discretion in how they handle their criminal cases.

African-Americans and Hispanics likely would benefit the most from a change. African-Americans account for about 30 percent of federal drug convictions each year and Hispanics account for 40 percent, according to Mauer.

If state policymakers were to adopt similar policies, the impact of changes at the state level could be even broader, said Mauer. Currently, about 225,000 state prisoners are incarcerated for drug offenses, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. One national survey from 15 years ago by the Sentencing Project found that 58 percent of state drug offenders had no history of violence or high-level drug dealing.

"These proportions on state prisoners may have shifted somewhat since that time, but it's still likely that a substantial proportion of state drug offenders fall into that category today," said Mauer.

Federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity and hold more than 219,000 inmates — with almost half of them serving time for drug-related crimes and many of them with substance use disorders. In addition, 9 million to 10 million prisoners go through local jails each year. Holder praised state and local law enforcement officials for already instituting some of the types of changes Holder says must be made at the federal level.

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."

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."

Holder said new approaches — which he is calling the "Smart On Crime" initiative — are the result of a Justice Department review he launched early this year.

The attorney general said some issues are best handled at the state or local level and said he has directed federal prosecutors across the country to develop locally tailored guidelines for determining when federal charges should be filed, and when they should not.

"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," Holder said.

The attorney general said 17 states 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.

In Kentucky, legislation has reserved prison beds for the most serious offenders and refocused resources on community supervision. The state, Holder said, is projected to reduce its prison population by more than 3,000 over the next 10 years, saving more than $400 million.

He also cited investments in drug treatment in Texas for non-violent offenders and changes to parole policies which he said brought about a reduction in the prison population of more than 5,000 inmates last year. He said similar 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 the department is 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.

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Comments » 9

August8 writes:

Speaking of racists, wow !

WMissow writes:

Holder should be in jail himself. Now he wants the balance of the Obama phone supporters a get out of jail card. Get real, fool, you let them out they will commit bigger more violent crimes to see what they can get away with.

A vote for Obama and his cronies was a vote to destroy this country.

WMissow writes:

Genuine,

EXCELLENT!

panola60 writes:

in response to August8:

Speaking of racists, wow !

August claims if you disagree with him then you must be a racist which is proof that August is the real racist.

26yearsonmarco writes:

This is the bottom line:

"African-Americans and Hispanics likely would benefit the most from a change."

If "We the Anglo Saxon People" in the Once Great Country don't Stand Our Ground, we might as well pack our bags and get our families the "H" out of here.

If think for one minute our children and grand children have a chance to live their lives the way we lived ours under this regime, you are sadly mistaken.

happy6 writes:

holder needs to go back where he came from...wherever that could be...and take his buddies with him.

26yearsonmarco writes:

Here is one of Holder and Obamee's people:

http://www.infowars.com/video-boy-pra...

26yearsonmarco writes:

I wonder if Trey Radel read this, would his position on Obamees impeachment change??

Yes, he told us in advance what he planned to do. Few were listening.
From Sunday's 07 Sept. 2008 11:48:04 EST, Televised "Meet the Press" THE THEN Senator Obama was asked about his stance on the American Flag.
General Bill Gann' USAF (ret.) asked Obama to explain WHY he doesn't follow protocol when the National Anthem is played.
The General stated to Obama that according to the United States Code, Title 36, Chapter 10, Sec. 171...
During rendition of the national anthem, when the flag is displayed, all present (except those in uniform) are expected to stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. Or, at the very least, "Stand and Face It".
NOW GET THIS !!
'Senator Obama replied:
"As I've said about the flag pin, I don't want to be perceived as taking sides". "There are a lot of people in the world to whom the American flag is a symbol of oppression.." "The anthem itself conveys a war-like message. You know, the bombs bursting in air and all that sort of thing."
(ARE YOU READY FOR THIS???)
Obama continued: "The National Anthem should be 'swapped' for something less parochial and less bellicose. I like the song 'I'd Like To Teach the World To Sing'. If that were our anthem, then, I might salute it. In my opinion, we should consider reinventing our National Anthem as well as 'redesign' our Flag to better offer our enemies hope and love. It's my intention, if elected, to disarm America to the level of acceptance to our Middle East Brethren. If we, as a Nation of warring people, conduct ourselves like the nations of Islam, where peace prevails - - - perhaps a state or period of mutual accord could exist between our governments ......"
When I become President, I will seek a pact of agreement to end hostilities between those who have been at war or in a state of enmity, and a freedom from disquieting oppressive thoughts. We as a Nation, have placed upon the nations of Islam, an unfair injustice which is WHY my wife disrespects the Flag and she and I have attended several flag burning ceremonies in the past".
"Of course now, I have found myself about to become the President of the United States and I have put my hatred aside. I will use my power to bring CHANGE to this Nation, and offer the people a new path. My wife and I look forward to becoming our Country's First black Family. Indeed, CHANGE is about to overwhelm the United States of America "
Yes, you read it right.
I, for one, am speechless!!!

Dale Lindsborg , Washington Post

WMissow writes:

in response to 26yearsonmarco:

Here is one of Holder and Obamee's people:

http://www.infowars.com/video-boy-pra...

Reminds me of the chants that Hitler received from his young followers during the early 1940s.

Ignorance and brainwashing trumps rationality!

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