U.S. attorney general takes steps to reform drug-sentencing policy

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says he is directing the U.S. Department of Justice to review the way U.S. attorneys charge low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. AP Photo/Evan Vucci
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Calling the criminal justice system “in too many respects broken,” the country’s top law enforcement official Monday announced a set of reforms to national drug policies aimed at reducing the number of minorities sent to prison on federal drug charges.

“It’s time — in fact, it’s well past time — to address persistent needs and unwarranted disparities by considering a fundamentally new approach,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told delegates of the American Bar Association in San Francisco at their annual meeting Monday. “While I have the utmost faith in — and dedication to — America’s legal system, we must face the reality that, as it stands, our system is in too many respects broken. The course we are on is far from sustainable.”

As of Jan. 1, 13 percent of inmates in the state prison system were locked up on drug charges, according to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. That was down from about 20 percent in 2009, before the Rockefeller Drug Laws — which carried stiffer penalties than federal laws — were reformed to remove mandatory minimum sentences.

The federal prison population has grown by almost 800 percent since 1980 — for comparison, the country’s population has increased about one-third during that time —, according to Holder, with more than 219,000 federal prisoners behind bars, Holder said.

“Almost half of them are serving time for drug-related crimes, and many have substance use disorders,” he added.

Citing a report that said black male offenders have received sentences up to 20 times longer than white males for comparable crimes, Holder said the Justice Department will “take a series of significant actions to recalibrate America’s federal criminal justice system.”

High on Holder’s list is changing his department’s policies so that certain low-level, nonviolent offenders are not subject to mandatory minimum sentences.

In 2010, cocaine offenses accounted for about 28 percent of federal convictions carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, followed by crack (about 25 percent), methamphetamine (almost 22 percent), marijuana (more than 17 percent) and heroin (less than 7 percent).

For cocaine, minimum sentences can range from five years for 500 grams to 10 years for 5 kilos.

Explaining that the indiscriminate application of the minimums had a destabilizing effect on poor communities of color, Holder said he mandated the Justice Department to downgrade the charges it brings against lower-risk offenders and added he was hopeful about legislation introduced in Congress that would give federal judges more leeway when it came to sentencing.

“By reserving the most severe penalties for serious, high-level or violent drug traffickers, we can better promote public safety, deterrence and rehabilitation — while making our expenditures smarter and more productive,” he said.

Changes are also coming to policies toward the elderly and ill inmates.

Holder said the DOJ updated its framework for granting compassionate release to the elderly who have served significant time or those with serious medical conditions, providing they do not pose a threat to the public.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4574.

Posted 4:19 am, August 15, 2013
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Reader feedback

joy from flushing says:
Makes sense.
Aug. 16, 2013, 6:02 am
Dianna from KCMO says:
It is about time. Has a LMSW I have seen first hand the damage these to individuals and families.
Aug. 17, 2013, 6:12 am
Dianna from KCMO says:
I meant to say the damage caused by these outdated laws to individual and family
Aug. 17, 2013, 6:17 am

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