WASHINGTON (CNN) — The Justice Department will no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday, noting the nation is “coldly efficient in jailing criminals” but that it “cannot prosecute or incarcerate” its way to becoming safer.
“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” Holder told the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates in San Francisco.
He questioned some assumptions about the criminal justice system’s approach to the “war on drugs,” saying that excessive incarceration has been an “ineffective and unsustainable” part of it.
Although he said the United States should not abandon being tough on crime, Holder embraced steps to address “shameful” racial disparities in sentencing, the budgetary strains of overpopulated prisons and policies for incarceration that punish and rehabilitate, “not merely to warehouse and forget.”
Holder invoked President Barack Obama, saying the two had been talking about the issues and agreed to try to “strike a balance” that clears the way for a “pragmatic” and “commonsense” solutions to enhance public safety and the “public good.”
The centerpiece of Holder’s plan is to scale back prosecution for certain drug offenders — those with no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels. He said they would no longer be charged with offenses that “impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences.”
They now “will be charged with offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins.”
The changes are effective immediately.
Lessening the use of mandatory minimums — sentences that require a “one-size-fits-all” punishment for those convicted of federal and state crimes — could mark the end of the tough-on-crime era that began with strict anti-drug laws in the 1970s and accelerated with mandatory minimum prison sentences and so-called three-strikes laws.
The attorney general linked the effort to rethink mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes to key issues.
Holder said the U.S. prison population has grown by almost 800% since 1980, and federal prisons are operating at nearly 40% above capacity.
“Even though this country comprises just 5% of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. More than 219,000 federal inmates are currently behind bars,” he said, noting that almost half are serving time for drug-related crimes and have substance abuse problems.
Moreover, he said 9 million to 10 million more people cycle through America’s local jails each year. And roughly 40% of former federal prisoners — and more than 60% of former state prisoners — are rearrested or have their supervision revoked within three years after their release.
Holder said overcrowding at the federal, state and local levels is “both ineffective and unsustainable.” He said 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.”
Legislation to lessen the use of mandatory minimums, Holder said, would ultimately save the United States billions.