Holder calls for reduced sentences for low-level drug offenders

Attorney General Eric Holder is calling for reduced sentences for defendants in most of the nation’s drug cases, part of his effort to cut the burgeoning U.S. prison population. (The Washington Post)

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Thursday called for reduced sentences for defendants in most of the nation’s drug cases, part of his effort to cut the burgeoning U.S. prison population and reserve stiff penalties for the most violent traffickers.

Holder’s proposal, which is expected to be approved by the independent agency that sets sentencing policies for federal judges, would affect 70 percent of drug offenders in the criminal justice system, according to figures provided by Justice Department officials. It would reduce sentences by an average of nearly a year.

“Certain types of cases result in too many Americans going to prison for far too long, and at times for no truly good public safety reason,” Holder told the U.S. Sentencing Commission. “Although the United States comprises just five percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.”

Like Holder’s previous criminal justice reforms, the move is likely to be hailed by civil liberties groups and assailed by some lawmakers who think the administration is chipping away at federal policies designed to deter criminals and improve public safety.

The seven-member sentencing panel has proposed an amendment to federal sentencing guidelines and will vote on it as soon as April. Until then, federal judges must refer to current sentencing guidelines. Officials, however, said Holder will instruct his prosecutors in a memo Thursday not to press judges to impose the longer sentences in the current guidelines if attorneys for drug offenders seek shorter sentences for their clients that would be permissible under the new policy.

In his weekly video message, Attorney General Eric Holder called the rise in deaths from overdoses of heroin and prescription painkillers an “urgent and growing public health crisis.” (The Department of Justice)

Under current mandatory minimum guidelines, a drug offender convicted of possessing 500 grams of cocaine or 28 grams of crack would face a term of 63 to 78 months. Holder is proposing that the time in such a case be reduced to 51 to 63 months.

“By reserving the most severe penalties for dangerous and violent drug traffickers, we can better protect public safety, deterrence and rehabilitation while saving billions of dollars and strengthening communities,” Holder said Thursday.

The lower sentencing ranges would result in a 17 percent decrease in the average length of time imposed on a drug offender, Justice Department officials said.

Holder’s new sentencing proposal is the latest step in his agenda to revise the criminal justice system. In August, he announced that low-level nonviolent drug offenders with no connection to gangs or large-scale drug organizations would not automatically be charged with offenses that call for severe mandatory sentences. That measure, however, didn’t address the sentencing ranges defendants could face under federal guidelines.

Holder’s latest policy change would reduce the Bureau of Prison population by 6,550 people within five years, according to the Justice Department. Of the more than 216,000 federal inmates, nearly half are serving time for drug-related crimes.

At the same time it is seeking to reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders, the Justice Department is putting greater focus on violent traffickers who bring heroin and other drugs into the United States.

Separately, Holder in August announced a policy to reduce sentences for elderly, nonviolent inmates and to find alternatives to prison for nonviolent criminals. He traveled to several cities, including Philadelphia and Peoria, Ill., to highlight drug treatment programs that serve as alternatives to prison for low-level offenders.

The attorney general said his initiative would save the government billions of dollars and stop what he calls a destructive cycle of drug abuse, crime and incarceration. The United States, including state and local jurisdictions, spends nearly $83 billion each year on corrections. The federal government alone spends $6.4 billion annually to maintain its prisons, accounting for 25 percent of the Justice Department’s annual budget.

Holder’s efforts to reduce the prison population have drawn criticism from Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and other lawmakers who say the administration is undermining policies that were set up to deter would-be criminals.

But many of Holder’s criminal justice policies have been praised by civil liberties groups and have bipartisan support in Congress. A bill that Holder and the Obama administration support to reform prison sentences includes both Republican and Democratic sponsors, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).

Last week, at the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor, Md., Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry said that prison reform is one issue on which he agrees with Holder.

“There aren’t many things that the president and the attorney general and I agree about. Know what I mean?” said Perry, who ran for president in 2012.

Sari Horwitz covers the Justice Department, after 30 years at the paper where she has been an investigative reporter and covered federal law enforcement, crime, education and social services.
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