Attorney General Eric Holder was scheduled to testify before the United States Sentencing Commission on Thursday to push for the dismantling of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes.
Holder is also supporting the committee’s proposal to reduce prison sentences for dealing drugs, which would include cutting the average sentence for drug dealers from 62 months to 51 months, according to The New York Times.
The commission’s proposals, which have the backing of a group of Republican lawmakers, led to the Justice Department in January to urge low-level criminals serving long sentences on crack cocaine convictions to appeal for clemency.
“This overreliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable,” Holder said in a prepared statement to the committee. “It comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”
Holder said the new sentencing guidelines would “send a strong message about the fairness of our criminal justice system.” He added, “And it would help to rein in federal prison spending while focusing limited resources on the most serious threats to public safety.”
The Times pointed out that the overcrowded prison system, which reached a high in 2009 with 1.6 million inmates, is still bursting at the seams with about one in 100 adults behind bars.
Half of the 215,000 inmates in federal prisons have been locked up for drug offenses, which would be reduced by 6,550 inmates by 2019 under the new sentencing guidelines. In fact, a third of the Justice Department’s budget is spent on the prison system.
Holder noted that prison reform is also a case of civil rights because 37 percent of the federal inmates are African-Americans compared to 13 percent of the general population.
The drawdown on drug sentences comes as the country’s stance on marijuana use has softened in recent years, with 20 states and the District of Columbia legalizing medical marijuana while Colorado and Washington have approved pot for recreational use as well.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry
said on the Jimmy Kimmel Live! Show on Tuesday that the Lone Star State had cut sentences on drug offenses and eliminated one prison in Texas entirely.
And President Barack Obama said earlier this year that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol, while Holder has announced measures to enable legitimate marijuana businesses to enter the banking system for the first time.
The Sentencing Commission will likely vote next month on the guidelines, which will then go to Congress for approval before potentially becoming law in November.
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