The Justice Department is expanding a major change in federal drug sentencing policy to cover pending drug cases, Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday.
Last month, Holder said certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders — those without ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels — no longer will be charged with offenses that impose severe mandatory minimum sentences.
Holder said he now has broadened the new policy to cover defendants who have not yet been convicted in drug cases that could involve lengthy mandatory prison sentences. The policy also may be applied, at the discretion of prosecutors, to a defendant who has entered a guilty plea, but has not yet been sentenced.
Mandatory minimum prison sentences, a legacy of the government's war on drugs, limit the discretion of judges to impose shorter prison terms.
Holder says the government should reserve the most severe prison terms for serious, high-level or violent drug traffickers.
"Some federal drug statutes that mandate inflexible sentences — regardless of the individual conduct at issue in a particular case — do not serve public safety when they're applied indiscriminately," Holder told a criminal justice issues forum of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this week, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said that in one case, a first-time offender arrested with less than 2 ounces of cocaine was sentenced to 10 years in prison because of mandatory sentencing guidelines. Paul has drafted legislation along with committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., that would give judges wider sentencing discretion as one way to relieve prison overcrowding and bring down the exploding costs of operating prisons.
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