Holder to revamp mandatory sentencing guidelines for nonviolent drug offenses

Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday announced that the Justice Department will no longer press mandatory minimum sentences against many low-level nonviolent drug crime offenders.

Holder also said he has ordered federal prosecutors to revamp statutes and provide more flexibility for judges in nonviolent drug offenses, including in sentences for people without ties to gangs or drug cartels.

“Certain low-level, nonviolent 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 told an audience at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco.

“They now will be charged with offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins.”

Advocates of the changes say they will help address prison overcrowding in the U.S. and allow federal prosecutors to better target high-level drug criminals — a point alluded to by Holder.

“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no good law enforcement reason,” said Holder.

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

“To be effective, federal efforts must also focus on prevention and reentry. We must never stop being tough on crime. But we must also be smart and efficient when battling crime and the conditions and the individual choices that breed it.”

The DOJ plans to push community service or rehabilitation rather than prison sentences. Holder said he is also pushing to expand a program that helps release elderly, nonviolent inmates from incarceration to ease prison overcrowding.

Holder and his top aides are also slated to travel across the country in the coming weeks to point to successful efforts to reform sentencing laws and redirect nonviolent offenders from prison, pointing to the millions of dollars in savings the new directives will bring about.

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.

In his speech, Holder said he will continue to push lawmakers to pass that legislation, arguing that it could “save our country billions of dollars.”

Leahy lauded the move by Holder, saying that mandatory minimum sentences are counterproductive to rehabilitating criminals.

“As a former prosecutor, I understand that criminals must be held accountable, and that long sentences are sometimes necessary to keep violent criminals off the street,” said Leahy.

“I have come to believe, however, that our reliance on mandatory minimums has been a great mistake, and I am encouraged that Attorney General Holder and the Department of Justice have joined the growing chorus from across the political spectrum that question this one-size-fits-all approach. It does not make us safer.”

Leahy said he plans to explore the issue further in a hearing next month, stressing that legislation is necessary for federal judges to have the flexibility they need in determining sentences for convicted criminals.