SAN FRANCISCO/WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – The Obama administration unveiled steps yesterday to fix what it considers the longstanding unjust treatment of many nonviolent drug offenders, aiming to bypass tough mandatory prison terms while reducing America’s huge prison population and saving billions of dollars.
“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” Attorney General Eric Holder, the top U.S. law enforcement official, said in a speech in San Francisco unveiling a series of sweeping proposals.
Holder said that the Justice Department would direct federal prosecutors to charge defendants in certain low-level drug cases in such a way that they would not be eligible for mandatory sentences now on the books.
Prosecutors would do this by omitting from official charging documents the amount of drugs involved in a case, lawyers with expertise in criminal law said. By doing so, prosecutors would ensure that nonviolent defendants without significant criminal history would not get long sentences.
Other proposals unveiled by Holder – such as giving federal judges the leeway to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses – require congressional approval, a tricky prospect at a time of partisan gridlock in Washington.
Holder labeled as an injustice the mandatory minimum sentences required under the criminal justice system in many drugs cases – condemning offenders to long prison terms even for nonviolent crimes and possession of small amounts of drugs.
“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,” Holder said.