Eric Holder proposes major shift in 'war on drugs'

Attorney General Eric Holder wants federal prosecutors to avoid mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders, saying prisons are overcrowded 'for no good law enforcement reason.'

Stephen Lam/Reuters
US Attorney General Eric Holder exits after speaking at the annual meeting of the American Bar Association in San Francisco Monday.

In a fundamental shift in America’s decades-long war on drugs, Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Monday he has ordered federal prosecutors to stop seeking maximum punishments for certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Bar Association in San Francisco, Mr. Holder said the effort was aimed at reducing the number of nonviolent offenders clogging the nation’s prisons.

“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for too long for no good law enforcement reason,” he said.

The Obama administration was undertaking a pragmatic approach to recalibrate the federal criminal justice system, Holder said, and to address the stark racial disparity in American prisons.

He noted that according to one report, black male offenders receive sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes.

“This isn’t just unacceptable,” he said, “it is shameful.”

“Although incarceration has a significant role to play in our justice system – widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable,” the attorney general said.

The US has 5 percent of the world’s population but incarcerates almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners, Holder said. In 2010 that policy cost US taxpayers $80 billion.

Part of the solution is a new emphasis on prosecutorial discretion at the front end of a criminal case. Rather than enforcing every federal drug law, federal prosecutors will be encouraged to allow state or local prosecutors to bring charges against nonviolent drug offenders.

Holder has also ordered prosecutors to use their discretion in how certain drug offenders are charged to avoid triggering harsh mandatory sentencing schemes that have sent a quarter of federal inmates to prison.

Low-level offenders who have no ties to drug gangs, international traffickers, or drug cartels “will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences,” Holder said. “By reserving the most severe penalties for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers, we can better promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation.”

Critics attacked Holder’s approach as an attempt to sidestep sentencing policies established after significant debate and enactment in Congress. Some said it would undercut the ability of prosecutors to reach quick plea deals.

The effort won praise from groups that have long advocated for criminal justice reforms.

“Today, the attorney general is taking crucial steps to tackle our bloated federal mass incarceration crisis, and we are thrilled by these long-awaited developments,” said Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office. “These policies will make it more likely that wasteful and harmful federal prison overcrowding will end.”

“The level of incarceration and the fiscal and human costs under current federal policies are unsustainable,” ABA President Laurel Bellows said in a statement. “These changes outlined by Attorney General Holder are welcome and much-needed steps toward bringing the federal system into line with smart, evidence-based policy that will better serve taxpayers and public safety,” she said.

Holder noted that in recent years 17 states had directed funding away from prison construction and instead focused on programs like drug treatment and supervision that are aimed at reducing recidivism.

He added that “promising legislation” has been introduced in the US Senate that would give federal judges more discretion to reserve the harshest penalties for the most egregious offenders. 

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