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Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday called for lower sentences for non-violent drug crimes, potentially reducing prison time by an average of a year.
In remarks to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, Holder endorsed a commission proposal to revise the guidelines used by judges in calculating sentences for defendants in federal court.
Holder described the changes as “modestly reducing guideline penalties for drug trafficking offenses” while “continuing to ensure tough penalties for violent criminals, career criminals, or those who used weapons when committing drug crimes.”
He said the easing of sentences would help to reduce federal prison spending "while focusing limited resources on the most serious threats to public safety."
The Justice Department estimates the reduced sentences would lower the federal prison population by about 6,500 inmates within five years. According to the Bureau of Prisons, there are currently about 216,000 federal inmates. Roughly 50 percent of those are in for drug offenses.
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Under the proposed plan, a defendant convicted of possessing 100 grams of heroin, 500 grams of powder cocaine, or 28 grams of crack cocaine would face a maximum sentence under the guidelines of 63 months — compared to 78 months now. The minimum would drop to 51 months, from 63 now.
For possessing one kilogram of heroin, five kilograms of powder cocaine, or 280 grams of crack, the maximum would drop to 121 months, from 151 now. The minimum would fall to 97 months, from 121 now.
The changes would apply to about 70 percent of all federal drug trafficking offenders.
The commission will vote on the proposal within the next few months. In the meantime, Holder is directing federal prosecutors not to object to sentencing recommendations that are in line the with proposed reductions.
Holder noted that 17 states have “directed significant funding away from prison construction and toward evidence-based programs and services, like supervision and drug treatment, that are proven to reduce recidivism while improving public safety.”
A report from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance estimates that those states “will actually save $4.6 billion over a 10-year period. Many have already seen drops in recidivism rates, as well as overall crime rates, even as their prison populations have declined,” Holder said.