AG Holder goes to war on drug sentences
To bring down the U.S.'s crowded prison population, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Monday said low-level offenders would be spared mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.
"Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities," Holder told the American Bar Association in San Francisco. "And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems, rather than alleviate them."
Holder's plan includes instructing U.S. attorneys to keep the amount of drugs off indictments against low-level offenders so the penalties are "better suited to their individual conduct," instead of triggering mandatory prison terms tailored for violent criminals or drug kingpins. U.S. attorneys would also develop guidelines to determine when someone should get hit with federal charges or let local prosecutors take the case.
Almost half of the 219,000 federal inmates are serving time for drug-related crimes.
Inimai Chettiar, the justice program director at the Brennan Center for Justice, said states including New York have been instituting reforms to bring down their inmate populations.
"Elevating this to the national stage is critically important," Chettiar said. "This would help move forward the national reform effort."
Daniel Richman, Columbia University law professor, believed Holder's edict will have little practical effect in New York City.
"There's no automatic inclusion of weight [of drugs in an indictment], particularly for low-level nonviolent offenders," Richman said. "I'd be surprised if the practices of the Eastern District and Southern District change radically because of the attorney general's announcement."
Reps for the two U.S. attorneys declined to comment.
Xavier Donaldson, a board member of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association, said keeping the amount of drugs off indictments will keep "the young knucklehead at the bottom" from getting a stiff automatic jail sentence if found guilty in a large conspiracy case.
"They really shouldn't be hit the same way as a major, narcotic, violent gang member for the same type of drugs," Donaldson said. "It doesn't seem to be fair."