Attorney General Wants Changes to Federal Drug Sentences

August 15, 2013

Attorney General Eric Holder wants to change the federal sentencing guidelines. More specifically, it appears as if he wants to do away with lengthy mandatory sentences relating to drug cases. In an announcement, Holder expressed his desire to do away with these draconian sentences in an effort reduce the nation's overcrowded prisons and use precious government dollars in better ways. For years, Miami criminal defense attorneys have complained mostly to each other that the mandatory sentences were unfair and too harsh. If Holder gets his way, the federal criminal justice system with respect to drug cases will undergo changes not seen since the war on drugs was declared in the 80's.

Holder's first step to making the change was to instruct federal prosecutors to stop charging non-violent drug offenders under federal statutes that carry mandatory sentences. He is also proposing legislative changes that gives federal judges more latitude in sentencing in drug cases. The growing prison rate which now exceeds 219,000 inmates is operating at more than 40% above capacity. An 800% increase in federal inmate population is causing prisons to operate inefficiently. Almost 50% of the inmates are being held for drug related offenses. Holder wants to reduce the number of relatively minor drug offenders by offering community service programs and drug treatment. Many politicians, both Democrats and Republicans agree with his assessment.

Proponents of Holder's position believe that his plans could lead to significant improvements. Minorities would stand the most to gain as African-Americans account for almost 30% of the drug cases that go through the federal justice system. Hispanics account for about 40% of the federal drug cases. Similar measures in the state criminal justice system would reduce significantly over-bloated state and county prison populations. In many instances, the mandatory sentences for drug offenses such as heroine trafficking and trafficking in oxycodone are more burdensome in the state system than in the federal system. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons claims that there are currently 225,000 state prisoners that are in custody for drug crimes. The majority of which have no criminal history for violent crimes or high-level drug trafficking activity.

The reason for Holder's position is that the rising costs for prison operations is severely reducing the amount of money necessary to train and pay law enforcement officers and prosecutors. Holder believes that the issues regarding the state system needs to be handled by state and local governments. He has only directed that federal prosecutors create guidelines when prosecuting defendants for drug possession, drug importation or drug trafficking. The attorney general suggests that money would be better utilized for treatment and supervision rather than incarceration. The director of the American Civil Liberties Union and the president of the Families Against Mandatory Minimums are applauding Holder's efforts.

Holder Goes After Mandatory Federal Drug Sentences, South Florida Times Miami.com, August 15, 2013.