Holder Overhauls Sentencing Guidelines for Nonviolent Offenders

The attorney general's plan would curb stiff sentencing in low-level drug cases.

Posted: 08/12/2013 01:13 PM EDT

In a move that could save taxpayers millions of dollars and minorities years behind bars, Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Monday a "Smart on Crime" initiative to curtail mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

"I have mandated a modification of the Justice Department's charging policies so that certain low-level, non-violent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences," Holder said in a speech at the American Bar Association's annual conference in San Francisco.

According to the attorney general, the United States comprises 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prison population. Since 1980, the federal prison population has grown by nearly 800 percent. And in 2010, widespread incarceration cost the nation $80 billion and "human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate," he said.

Currently, a defendant accused of conspiring to distribute five kilograms of cocaine faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years. Under the guidelines Holder outlined today, federal judges would be given more discretion in applying mandatory minimums. The plan also calls for federal prosecutors to focus on the most serious crimes while local and state prosecutors deal with those that are less serious.

“By targeting the most serious offenses, prosecuting the most dangerous criminals, directing assistance to crime 'hot spots,' and pursuing new ways to promote public safety, deterrence, efficiency and fairness we in the federal government can become both smarter and tougher on crime," Holder said.

Two-thirds of Americans incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses are persons of color. And over the last two decades, African-Americans have constituted at least 80 percent of those charged with crack cocaine offenses. A second, but more subtle, effect of mandatory penalties is that it prevents offenders with prior convictions from being considered for a “safety valve” that would reduce the mandatory sentence. Because African-Americans are criminalized for drug offenses at disproportionately higher rates, this also adversely affects them.

"We also must confront the reality that once they’re in that system people of color often face harsher punishments than their peers. One deeply troubling report, released in February, indicates that in recent years Black male offenders have received sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes," Holder said. "This isn’t just unacceptable it is shameful.  It’s unworthy of our great country, and our great legal tradition." 

Holder said he has directed a group of U.S. attorneys to examine sentencing disparities and develop recommendations to address them.

His sentencing plan does not require congressional approval, but Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ilinois), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) have introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act to address the problem.

The legislation would extend the eligibility of a "safety valve" that allows judges to issue sentences below the mandatory sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses. It would also work to decrease the disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses by allowing certain inmates sentenced under the Fair Sentencing Act to petition for sentence reductions.

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(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)


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