Holder pushes eased drug sentences

Attorney General Eric HolderEric H. HolderVoting advocates notch win at Supreme Court Flynn refusal sets up potential subpoena showdown House votes to expand death penalty for police killings MORE urged Congress Thursday to approve legislation designed to ease mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, allowing judges more discretion to impose lighter sentences on people convicted of drug crimes.

“As we’ve said many times before: we will never be able to arrest and incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation,” Holder said after touring a Virginia drug treatment facility for recovering veterans who would otherwise be behind bars.

His remarks come in support of the Obama administration’s “Smart on Crime” initiative targeting racial and social disparities in the justice system and emphasizing diversion programs over jail time.

Under Holder, the Justice Department has changed its sentencing policies to keep people accused of low-level federal drug crimes from facing mandatory sentences that the administration views as unduly harsh.

“These changes, coupled with programs like this one, will improve criminal justice outcomes while reducing the burden on our overcrowded prison system,” Holder said.

During the remarks, and in a videotaped message issued Thursday, Holder called on Congress to pass a bipartisan Senate bill that would give judges increased flexibility in doling out punishment in drug cases.

Introduced last year by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), the Smarter Sentencing Act would allow judges to ignore statutory minimum sentencing guidelines in cases where the defendant's criminal history meets certain criteria.

The bill would also create a new mechanism enabling some prisoners to petition courts for reduced sentences if they were convicted prior to the passage of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act.

Late last year, President Obama commuted the sentences of eight people who were sentenced for crack cocaine offenses under the old sentencing regime. 

A New Yorker magazine article published earlier this week quoted Obama as saying he believes marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol and that it was “important” that the legalization of the drug in some states “go forward” because it would prevent unfair penalties for some users.

Though the statements seemed to contradict the National Drug Control Policy's official stance on the drug, the White House maintained that its position on marijuana has not changed.