Holder to call for major reform of mandatory minimum sentencing

Share The GrioShare The Grio

Attorney General Eric Holder will announce in a speech today that the Department of Justice will no longer charge low-level, non-violent drug offenders with crimes that trigger mandatory minimum sentences, a major shift in American drug policy and an indication that President Obama wants to reduce the number of Americans who serve long prison sentences over drug crimes and rethink American laws that have existed for decades.

“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,” Holder is expected to say Monday at a meeting in San Francisco of the American Bar Association, according to excerpts of his remarks provided to theGrio. “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.”

In effect, Holder is calling for prosecutors to charge defendants for lesser crimes than they may have actually committed, thereby allowing juries and judges more latitude in imposing sentences, instead of following mandatory minimums created by Congress that many in both parties say are now outdated.

The proposal is part of a “Smart on Crime” initiative Holder will announce on Monday. He will speak about the need to reduce the number of Americans in prison, arguing, “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no good law enforcement reason.” He will urge states to use programs that put drug offenders in treatment programs instead of being sent to jail and also alter federal guidelines to make it easier for non-violent, elderly criminals who have served significant portions of their sentences to be released, particularly if they are suffering from illnesses.

“The bottom line is that, while the aggressive enforcement of federal criminal statutes remains necessary, we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.  To be effective, federal efforts must also focus on prevention and reentry,” Holder is expected to say. “We must never stop being tough on crime.  But we must also be smarter on crime.”

In calling for prosecutors not to charge people with crimes that impose mandatory minimums, the Justice Department will in effect be reversing some of the policies of the “War on Drugs” that were created in the 1980s, and do so without the permission of Congress. But as Holder is expected to note on Monday, some prominent Republicans, including Tea Party favorites Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), have urged a reduction in mandatory sentences for some drug crimes. Paul referred to mandatory minimums as the “new Jim Crow” in a speech earlier this year at Howard University.

“We’ve seen that similar goals enjoy bipartisan support in Congress – where a number of leaders, including Senators Durbin, Leahy, Lee, and Paul have introduced promising legislation aimed at giving federal judges more discretion in applying mandatory minimums to certain drug offenders.  Such legislation will ultimately save our country billions of dollars.  And the president and I look forward to working with members of both parties to refine and advance these proposals,” Holder is expected to say, referring to two key Democratic senators as well as the two Republicans.

The new policy continues a process by the Obama administration to change how America prosecutes drug crimes. In 2010, Obama signed a law that reduced disparities in sentencing between those caught with crack and those arrested with powder cocaine, fulfilling a promise made during his presidential campaign.

“The “War on Drugs,” is now 30, 40 years old. There have been a lot of unintended consequences. There’s been a kind of a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color,” Holder said in a recent interview with National Public Radio.

But the Obama administration could face the criticism that it should have sought changes in mandatory minimum sentences through Congress, rather than enacting them without legislation. Some Republicans lodged that charge last year when Obama unilaterally announced his administration would stop deporting the children of illegal immigrants, in effective bypassing Congress to implement what was known as the Dream Act.

The mandatory minimum change is likely to delight both liberal activists and African-Americans, both groups who have long argued the required sentences led to a huge growth in the number of blacks in prison.