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.
Those who would have previously been sent to prison under mandatory sentencing laws might not even be charged with a crime at all.
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. “This will be the fix (to stop drug crimes) and obviously crime will drop because you’re putting all the worst people in jail,” said KIRO Radio host Dave Ross trying to describe why some people supported the mandatory prison sentences.
“But you can’t put (offenders) in jail forever. We can’t afford it,” Ross said.
In remarks to the American Bar Association in San Francisco, Holder said he 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. Dave and KIRO Radio host John Curley thought they could divert money to rehab, too.
In one important change, the attorney general said he’s altering Justice Department policy so that 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.
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.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.