Attorney General Eric Holder is planning to announce major changes to the way prosecutors will handle non-violent drug crimes, in a new policy push meant to shrink the nation's prison population. The policies are intended to work around strict "mandatory minimum" laws that impose harsh sentences, even on first time drug offenses. Holder plans to give more details during a speech to the American Bar Association later today.
The biggest piece of the plan involves ordering federal prosecutors to omit the specific quantity of drugs involved in a case when handing out indictments, provided the crime does not also involve violence, weapons, or gang activity. Federal sentencing guidelines are often tied to the amount of certain drugs that a suspect is arrested with or accused of trying to sell. For example, possessing five kilograms with intent to sell carries a mandatory 10-year sentence. By omitting the amount, prosecutors and judges would have more leeway when determining punishment.
The Justice Department will also move to push more cases to state courts, where sentences are often more lenient and increase the use of drug treatment programs as an alternative to prison.
Although the policies will pitched as way to ease the overcrowding burden faced in prisons across the nation — and thus save billions of dollars a year in taxpayer costs — Holder is also expected to make the moral case that we're simply putting too many people behind bars for crimes that aren't that serious. According to The New York Times, the U.S. prison population has increased 800 percent since 1980, with nearly half all federal inmates serving for drug-related offenses. Meanwhile, the federal prison system is at 40 percent above capacity and budgets everywhere are strained by overcrowding and drug enforcement, even as the rates for more serious crimes go down.