Holder urges Congress to ease drug convicts' prison terms

McClatchy Washington BureauJanuary 23, 2014 

    Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday, Jan. 23rd, threw his weight behind bipartisan legislation to ease prison time for low-level drug offenders who got mandatory terms, another move in keeping with the administration’s “Smart on Crime” initiative announced last summer.

     With prisons almost bursting at the cell doors from overcrowding and incarceration costs draining state and federal budgets, the lock ‘em all up approach has lost steam. Momentum behind a rollback of mandatory prison sentences seems to be growing.

     A relaxation of drug laws also addresses complaints that the U.S. criminal justice system discriminates against blacks and other minorities.

     “Our criminal justice systems works only when all Americans are treated equally under the law,” Holder said in an online video Thursday.

      The federal prison population has mushroomed by 500 percent, to 219,000, over the last 30 years, mainly because of the number and length of mandatory sentences, especially drug sentences.  During that span, the number of state inmates has tripled, to 1.35 million, data from the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics shows.

      President Barack Obama and Holder have made no secret of their desire for a different approach.

      In 2010, Congress eased mandatory drug sentences by passing the Fair Sentencing Act, which was aimed at reducing unjust disparities in sentencing for similar sentences that involved illegal use of different types of drugs.

    Last summer, Holder announced in a speech to the American Bar Association that the Justice Department would avoid prosecuting low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who aren’t part of large-scale drug-trafficking organizations.

      Over Christmas, Obama commuted the sentences of eight inmates who were incarcerated under what Holder on Thursday called an “outdated sentencing regime” – one that was especially harsh on crack cocaine users.

      Now Holder is supporting the Smarter Sentencing Act, co-authored by Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah.

     It would:

   --Amend the federal criminal code to direct courts to waive mandatory minimum sentences for certain drugs if the defendant has no more than a minor criminal history.

  --Authorize a federal court to retroactively relax mandatory sentences for crack cocaine possession or trafficking before Aug. 3, 2010, (when mandatory sentence laws were eased) to reduce the sentence as if the 2010 law were in effect when the affected inmate was sentenced.

  --Amend the Controlled Substances Act and the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for manufacturing, distributing, possessing or importing specified controlled substances.

   Last fall, the Urban Institute said in a study that that reducing the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses by even 20 percent would save nearly $1.3 billion over 10 years and cutting the number of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses by half would save about $2.5 billion over the time span.

    It also would ease prison overcrowding, the researchers found, noting that federal prisons now operate at 35 to 40 percent above capacity and that the most secure federal prisons have 51 percent more inmates than they were built to accommodate. Reforms in some states have already proved successful, the study found.

    In California, where reforms were instituted after an inmate lawsuit, data from the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics suggests. From 2011 to 2012, the number of state and federal prisoners declined by nearly 29,000, topped by California, where the total fell by more than 15,000, and Texas, which dropped by nearly 6,000.

    No action has yet been taken on the Durbin-Lee bill, which was introduced last summer.

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