News Column

Holder Calls for Drug- Sentencing Reductions

August 12, 2013
U.S Attorney Eric Holder is calling for a reduction for some mandatory sentences.
U.S Attorney Eric Holder is calling for a reduction for some mandatory sentences.

Attorney General Eric Holder is expected to call for drug-sentencing reduction and other criminal-justice reforms in an American Bar Association speech Monday.

Lawmakers of both parties have made similar suggestions in recent weeks, which Holder is expected to endorse.

"Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no good law-enforcement reason," an advance text of his remarks indicated Holder would say.

"While the aggressive enforcement of federal criminal statutes remains necessary, we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation."

Nearly half the 219,000 people in federal prisons are serving time for drug charges.

Holder is scheduled to address the bar association at its annual meeting in San Francisco at 10 a.m. PDT (1 p.m. EDT).

Under the new policy, federal prosecutors would press to send more drug offenders to treatment and community service instead of prison for long terms, the text indicated.

A Justice Department spokesman told the Los Angeles Times officials didn't know how many future prosecutions this change would affect.

Civil rights groups have argued for years long prison sentences disproportionately hurt low-income and minority communities -- a point Holder made in a National Public Radio interview Wednesday.

"The war on drugs is now 30, 40 years old," Holder told the network. "There have been a lot of unintended consequences. There's been a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color."

In his speech, Holder was expected to point to "a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration [that] traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities."

"Many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem, rather than alleviate it," the advance text said.

He told NPR he hoped the White House and Congress "work together to look at this whole issue and come up with changes that are acceptable to both."

Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, introduced a bill two weeks ago they call the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013, which would give judges greater discretion to sentence non-violent criminals below the so-called mandatory minimum sentences.

A mandatory minimum sentence involves laws that limit a judge's discretion. In these cases, people convicted of certain crimes must be punished with at least a minimum number of years in prison, whether the judge agrees or not.

The Durbin-Lee bill has received widespread support, including from the ABA, the American Civil Liberties Union and conservative libertarian Republican Grover Norquist.

Another bill, known as the Justice Safety Valve Act, would give judges more power to impose lower sentences for some non-drug crimes.

Its sponsors are Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Reps. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., and Robert Scott, D-Va.

"Doing away with mandatory minimums, giving more discretion to judges, that shouldn't be Republican or Democrat [issue]," Leahy told C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" program Aug. 4. "It just makes good sense."

The conservative corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council, which earlier pushed for tougher sentences, said last week it supported the Justice Safety Valve Act.

Holder is expected to endorse both bills in his ABA address.

"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," Holder's prepared remarks say.


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