A quarter of the nearly 25,000 people convicted of federal drug offenses each year could receive shorter sentences under a shift in policy announced by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder today, according to an analysis of government data.
Holder said the federal government will no longer seek mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level drug offenders, a change hailed by some as a turning point in the decades-long drug war that will save the government millions and relieve overcrowding in prisons, where the population has grown 800 percent in 30 years.
“Widespread incarceration ... is both ineffective and unsustainable,” said Holder in remarks at the American Bar Association’s annual convention in San Francisco. “It imposes a significant economic burden -- totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone -- and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”
“This is why I have today mandated a modification of the Justice Department's charging policies so that certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences,” he said.
"We must never stop being tough on crime,” said Holder. “But we must also be smarter on crime ... It's a matter of public safety and public good. It makes plain economic sense.”
The federal prison population has grown by almost 800 percent since 1980 to 219,000, and federal prisons are now at almost 40 percent over capacity. The budget for the Federal Bureau of Prison last year reached $6.6 billion, the second largest budget in the Department of Justice behind the FBI.
Drug offenses that carry long mandatory minimum sentences have been one of the most significant causes of the growth, according to federal reports. Last year, the 89,909 people convicted of drug offenses made up nearly half all federal inmates, according to statistics from the federal Bureau of Prisons. In 1980, just 4,700 people were in federal lockup for drug crimes.
Justice Department officials said they can't estimate how many people would be affected by Holder's shift in policy, but an NBC analysis of U.S. Sentencing Commission statistics suggests that it could impact about one quarter of all future drug offenders. In 2010, just over one quarter of the nearly 24,000 people convicted of federal drug offenses were found guilty of crimes that carried mandatory minimums and had little or no criminal history. Some already receive lesser sentences under so-called "safety valve" policies that apply to low-level nonviolent offenders.
Numbers from the Sentencing Commission also indicate that 85 percent of drug offenders sentenced in federal court in 2012 did not have weapons involved in their cases. The bulk of federal drug cases, about 66 percent last year, were for marijuana offenses.
Advocates who for years have pushed for federal prison reform welcomed Holder’s announcement.
“It’s a very significant step, and as much for symbolic reasons as it is for a practical effect,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a non-profit that advocates on criminal justice reform.
“One of the reasons we have such a huge rate of incarceration is due to the political climate that persisted for four decades,” Mauer added. “I think this proposal can make a huge contribution.”
But the devil is still in the details, said Mauer. Depending on the final policy, he said, the new approach could only impact a few thousand of the tens of thousands convicted each year.
There’s a marked difference between large-scale drug traffickers and low-level street dealers, said Molly Gill, government affairs counsel with the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “Judges aren’t allowed to recognize those kinds of distinctions, which is why you see our federal system full of people who are, by and large, non-violent drug offenders, or people without real criminal histories.”
Many hope that reform could also help address racial disparities in the federal system. Although African-Americans make up only 13 percent of the population in the United States, they account for 37 percent of federal inmates. Experts say that this disparity, due to a combination of harsh sentencing policies, selective policing and zealous prosecution of drug offenses, has had a devastating effect on minority communities and families.
“One of the reasons why there’s an enduring rate of poverty among black families is because so many black men are incarcerated,” said Paul Butler, professor of law at Georgetown University and a former federal prosecutor. “They’re not able to contribute to their families in a financial sense. When you have one in three black men with a criminal case, that has a huge effect on the employment prospects of those men.”
In a further effort to reduce overcrowding, Holder also announced expanded plans to release elderly prisoners earlier, and to allow local U.S. attorneys to take some cases out of federal courts and divert lower level offenders to rehabilitation programs.
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