WASHINGTON (AP) — With the U.S. facing massive overcrowding in its prisons, Attorney General Eric Holder called Monday for major changes to the nation’s criminal justice system that would scale back the use of harsh sentences for certain drug-related crimes.
In remarks to the American Bar Association in San Francisco, Holder said he also favors diverting people convicted of low-level offenses to drug treatment and community service programs and expanding a prison program to allow for release of some elderly, non-violent offenders.
“We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate — not merely to convict, warehouse and forget,” Holder said.
In one important change, the attorney general said he’s altering Justice Department policy so low-level, non-violent drug offenders with no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels won’t be charged with offenses that impose mandatory minimum sentences.
Mandatory minimum prison sentences, a product of the government’s war on drugs that began in the 1980s, limit the discretion of judges to impose shorter prison sentences.
Under the changed policy, the attorney general said defendants will be charged with offenses for which accompanying sentences “are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins.”
Holder’s comments drew bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he is encouraged by the Obama administration’s view that mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders promote injustice and do not serve public safety. Paul and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., introduced legislation in March to grant federal judges greater flexibility in sentencing all crimes where a mandatory minimum punishment is considered unnecessary. Leahy commended Holder for his efforts on the issue and said his committee will hold a hearing on the bill next month.