Yuri Gripas/Reuters
US Attorney General Eric Holder testifies before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington May 15, 2013. The Obama administration on Thursday threw its weight behind a proposal that it says could cut the average prison sentence for a federal drug defendant by 11 months, a change designed to help reduce the massive US prison population.

War on drugs: Eric Holder endorses reduced sentences for nonviolent offenders

Attorney General Eric Holder expressed support Thursday for a proposal by the US Sentencing Commission to amend its recommended sentences. The guidelines are part of a bigger recalibration of the war on drugs.

The Obama administration on Thursday signaled its support for a proposal to cut prison sentences for nonviolent federal drug offenders, as part of its broader effort to overhaul policies on drug crime and reduce the vast – and expensive – size of the prison population.

In a speech before the US Sentencing Commission, Attorney General Eric Holder expressed support for the commission’s proposal to amend its recommended sentences for federal nonviolent drug crimes. The measure would cut the average prison sentence for a federal drug defendant by about 11 months, and it would apply to almost 70 percent of defendants convicted of federal drug offenses in the future, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ).

The guidelines, part of a bigger recalibration of America’s war on drugs, would marshal government money to go after violent drug traffickers with long sentences, putting funds where they count the most, Mr. Holder said. The changes would also give nonviolent drug offenders – who are disproportionately minorities – a better shot at rehabilitation, and it would ease the toll that long prison sentences take not just on prisoners, but on the communities they leave, Holder said.

Overall, the reduced sentences would de-bloat a hefty prison budget, nixing about 6,550 inmates from the federal prison system over five years – a point that has brought such policies considerable bipartisan support in Congress, he said. State and federal governments spent a total of about $80 billion on prisons in 2010 alone, he said.

The new guidelines “would help to rein in federal prison spending while focusing limited resources on the most serious threats to public safety,” Holder testified, adding that America’s “reliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable – it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”

“This straightforward adjustment to sentencing ranges – while measured in scope – would nonetheless send a strong message about the fairness of our criminal justice system,” he said.

The US Sentencing Commission, a presidentially appointed group over which Holder has no direct authority, is charged with voting on guidelines that address how long federal judges should sentence defendants for various crimes. It is not expected to vote on the proposal until late April, and the new sentencing guidelines would not go into effect until the fall, if passed.

Still, Holder has asked prosecutors not to object if defense lawyers before then propose sentences consistent with the prospective guidelines.

However, only Congress, not the commission, has the power to change mandatory minimum sentences. Legislation before lawmakers, called the Smarter Sentencing Act, would cut many federal mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, some of them by half.

Holder’s speech comes after his call in front of the American Bar Association last August for a rethinking of how drug crime is handled in the United States, where almost half of its some 216,000 federal inmates are doing time for drug-related crimes.

His initiative, called Smart on Crime, asks that the harshest penalties be reserved for the most dangerous drug criminals and that more minor drug crimes be penalized with lighter sentences or, if possible, handled with drug rehabilitation programs, not prison.

Also in his speech before the American Bar Association, Holder announced a measure allowing some low-level drug offenders with no connection to major drug trafficking syndicates to avoid severe mandatory sentences.

The latest proposal, first proposed by the commission at the beginning of this year, would adjust the drug crimes sentencing table, lowering by two levels the offense associated with various drug quantities, according to the DOJ. For example, possession of between 200 and 400 grams of heroin is right now a Level 26 offense, according to the current guidelines. Under the new guidelines, it would be a Level 24 offense.

The proposed measures to cut sentences also come about four years after President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act to address a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. That disparity in the sentencing, which began in the 1980s, had disproportionately put poor minorities behind bars for decades-long terms, since those communities were more likely to use crack, not powder cocaine, the preferred drug of white, wealthier users.

The Smarter Sentencing Act, which Holder has endorsed, includes provisions that make the amended sentencing guidelines for crack/cocaine cases retroactive, alleviating the stiff sentences that current inmates convicted of crack-related crimes are serving. In January, the DOJ issued a call for those prisoners to apply for clemency, potentially meaning changes could happen ahead of congressional action.

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