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Holder Rolls Back Laws From Reagan's 'War on Drugs'

Image: Holder Rolls Back Laws From Reagan's 'War on Drugs'

By Melanie Batley and Newsmax Wires   |   Monday, 12 Aug 2013 09:46 AM

Attorney General Eric Holder announced a major shift in federal criminal policy on Monday, overturning the decades-old "mandatory minimum prison sentences" for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, a hallmark of President Ronald Reagan's War on Drugs.

Under the new policy, prosecutors will send fewer drug offenders to federal prison for long sentences, while judges will have more discretion in sentencing.

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"Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no good law enforcement reason," Holder said in a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco.

Describing his new approach as "Smart on Crime," Holder contends the current laws exacerbate "a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration" that "traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities."

"By targeting the most serious offenses, prosecuting the most dangerous criminals, directing assistance to crime 'hot spots,' and pursuing new ways to promote public safety, deterrence, efficiency, and fairness — we can become both smarter and tougher on crime," he said.

Holder also voiced support for bipartisan legislative efforts in Congress and on the state level aimed at reducing the use of mandatory minimum sentences and expanding the use of diversion programs in an effort to reduce the U.S. prison population.

"Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities," Holder said. "However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem, rather than alleviate it."

The Justice Department, which been working on a behind-the-scenes review of the U.S. criminal justice system at Holder's direction since the start of this year, adds a major voice to a process that has been gaining momentum as lawmakers have sought to identify ways to reduce a prison system that held more than 1.5 million people in 2012 at federal, state and local levels.

Holder has said he will propose a broad overhaul of the U.S. criminal justice system in multiple speeches this year, often with an eye on the racial disparities and deep financial strain that have come to be associated with the prison system over the years.

In April remarks in front of the National Action Network, a civil rights advocacy group, Holder said mandatory minimum sentences often "breed disrespect for the system and are ultimately counterproductive."

Lawmakers from both parties have begun their own push forward to reduce or provide flexibility in mandatory minimum sentences. In the House, lawmakers have put together a task force to conduct hearings and investigations into "overcriminalization" in the United States and release a report on their findings.

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, and Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah introduced a bill this month to give federal judges more discretion in sentencing nonviolent drug offenders.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, in March introduced legislation to give federal judges increased discretion on all federal crimes subject to mandatory minimum penalties, providing authority to use sentencing flexibility under certain conditions.

While the total prison population declined 1.7 percent in 2012 from 2011, the federal prison population increased by approximately 1,500. Federal prisons are currently operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity with more than 219,000 inmates, a growth since 1980 of almost 800 percent. Almost half the federal prison population is serving time for drug-related crimes, in addition to more than 9 million who go through local jails each year.

Leahy, in a Senate floor speech last month, attributed the significant growth of the U.S. prison population over the past two decades — something that cost more than $80 billion in 2010 — in part to the proliferation of mandatory minimum sentences.

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"This one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing never made us safer, but it has cost us plenty," Leahy said.

Holder cites both bills in his remarks, saying they would "save our country billions of dollars" and that he would work with lawmakers to "refine and advance" the legislation.

Holder also has directed U.S. attorney's offices around the country to develop new guidelines for determining when federal charges should be filed, with a focus on targeting "the most serious offenses" and "the most dangerous criminals."

The Justice Department also is in the process of identifying and implementing new diversion programs — an effort to find alternatives ranging from drug treatment to community service designed to halt the flow of individuals into the prison population.

Holder is seeking to capitalize on state-level efforts in places such as Kentucky, Texas and Arkansas — areas that regularly vote against Democrats — for both support and ideas, according to his remarks.

The Justice Department will also expand the federal compassionate release framework, something that began earlier this year when the Bureau of Prisons changed the criteria for nonviolent inmates facing serious medical problems. The framework will now be expanded for elderly inmates who didn’t commit violent crimes and have served significant portions of their sentences.

"The bottom line is that, while the aggressive enforcement of federal criminal statutes remains necessary, we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation," Holder said.

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Attorney General Eric Holder announced a major shift in federal criminal policy on Monday, overturning the decades-old "mandatory minimum prison sentences" for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, a hallmark of President Ronald Reagan's War on Drugs. Under the new...

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