Holder orders US attorneys to seek shorter sentences for drug crimes

Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday said he has ordered U.S. attorneys to avoid severe mandatory sentences in ongoing prosecutions for low-level drug offenses.

The order expands a recent policy shift at the Justice Department away from severe mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes by making clear that the directive applies retroactively to existing cases that meet certain requirements.

“I am pleased to announce today that the Department has issued new guidance to apply our updated charging policy not only to new matters but also to pending cases where the defendant was charged before the policy was issued but is still awaiting adjudication of guilt,” said Holder in remarks before the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual criminal justice forum.

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“By reserving the most severe prison terms for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers or kingpins, we can better enhance public safety. We can increase our focus on proven strategies for deterrence and rehabilitation.”

The new DOJ policy will affect criminals who do not have violent offenses, who did not use of a weapon while committing their crime, and who did not sell drugs to children.

The government’s revised sentencing rules also stipulate that offenders must not be leaders of a criminal organization, nor have major ties to a gang or cartel, and they must have an otherwise clean criminal record.

The DOJ plans to push community service or rehabilitation rather than prison sentences, while aiming to expand a program that helps release elderly, nonviolent inmates from incarceration to ease prison overcrowding.

Holder said the move would save the government millions of dollars, while strengthening poor and minority communities.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) released legislation earlier this year that would help scale back mandatory minimum laws by giving federal judges more authority to choose lesser sentences.