Nightly News   |  August 12, 2013

Holder calls for new ways of enforcing drug laws

Today Attorney General Eric Holder directed federal prosecutors not to report the amount of drugs involved in an arrest for non-violent offenders who have no ties to drug cartels or gangs and didn’t sell to children, if the report would trigger mandatory minimums. The changes are intended to help alleviate prison overcrowding and disparities in prosecutions. NBC’s Pete Williams reports.

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>>> the justice department is rethinking how it tries some drug cases. attorney general eric holder saying those mandatory minimum sentences are not reducing crime and leading to overcrowded prisons. he's telling federal prosecutors to use discretion in certain cases. our justice correspondent pete williams has our report.

>> reporter: natasha darington had no criminal record when arrested for herping her husband sell cocaine. she got mandatory sentence serving 11 years in prison away from her four children.

>> i wasn't there to help them grow up. i missed their birthdays, high school congratulations, i missed the birth of my first grandchild. i missed the funerals of both of my parents.

>> reporter: the attorney general today said too many americans get long prison sentences that don't fit the crime.

>> -- out-sized unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, to deter and to rehabilitate, but not merely to warehouse and to forget.

>> reporter: the number of inmates in federal prisons , 219,000, is 8 time what's it was 30 years ago and 40% over capacity. nearly half of there for drug crimes and roughly one-fourth of them were low-level offenders. holder today directed federal prosecutors not to report the amount of drugs involved in an arrest if it would trigger mandatory minimums for non-violent offenders who have no ties to drug cartels organics and who did not sell to children. welcome news to advocates of doing away with automatic sentences.

>> your punishments are far too harsh for the crime or particular offender, and the judge has no choice but to impose that.

>> reporter: a former head of the u.s. drug enforcement agency says cutting back on mandatory sentences takes away a bargaining chip.

>> there's no mandatory minimum that they have to face, the prosecutors and the agents lose leverage for getting more information and getting to the top of the organization.

>> reporter: the attorney general hopes to get mandatory drug sentences entirely off the books. an idea that's starting to attract bipartisan support in congress. nbc news, at the justice department .