Attorney General Eric Holder will announce a series of proposals designed to make wide- ranging changes to the criminal justice system including mandated modifications to federal charging policies aimed at eliminating what he called “draconian” mandatory minimum sentences for certain non-violent drug offenders.
Holder, in a speech today in San Francisco, also will voice 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 in remarks prepared for American Bar Association conference where he will outline his proposals. “However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem, rather than alleviate it.”
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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 from both parties have put together a task force to conduct hearings and investigations into “overcriminalization” in the U.S. and release a report on their findings.
Illinois Senator Richard Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, and Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah introduced a bill this month to give federal judges more discretion in sentencing non-violent drug offenders.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and Senator 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.
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. The federal prison population has grown by almost 800 percent since 1980 and currently sits at more than 219,000.
“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 he would work with lawmakers to “refine and advance” the legislation.
Holder has also 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 is also 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 non-violent 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 in the prepared remarks.
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