Holder proposes changes in criminal justice system

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 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.

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.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said he looks forward to working on the issue with Holder and

senators on both sides of the aisle who support change.

The impact of Holder's initiative on mandatory minimum sentences could be significant, says Marc Mauer, executive director

of the Sentencing Project, a non-profit group involved in research and policy reform of the criminal justice system.

There are roughly 25,000 drug convictions in federal court each year and 45 percent of those are for lower-level offenses

such as street level dealers and couriers and people who deliver drugs, said Mauer.

The unanswered question is how each of the 94 U.S. Attorneys offices around the country will implement changes, given the

authority of prosecutors to exercise discretion in how they handle their criminal cases.

African-Americans and Hispanics likely would benefit the most from a change. African-Americans account for about 30 percent

of federal drug convictions each year and Hispanics account for 40 percent, according to Mauer.

If state policymakers were to adopt similar

policies, the impact of changes at the state level could be even

broader, said

Mauer. Currently, about 225,000 state prisoners are incarcerated

for drug offenses, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice

Statistics. One national survey from 15 years ago by the

Sentencing Project found that 58 percent of state drug offenders

had no history of violence or high-level drug dealing.

"These proportions on state prisoners may have shifted somewhat since that time, but it's still likely that a substantial

proportion of state drug offenders fall into that category today," said Mauer.

Federal prisons are operating at nearly 40

percent above capacity and hold more than 219,000 inmates — with almost

half of

them serving time for drug-related crimes and many of them with

substance use disorders. In addition, 9 million to 10 million

prisoners go through local jails each year. Holder praised state

and local law enforcement officials for already instituting

some of the types of changes Holder says must be made at the

federal level.

Aggressive enforcement of federal criminal

laws is necessary, but "we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our

way to becoming

a safer nation," Holder said. "Today, a vicious cycle of poverty,

criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and

weakens too many communities. However, many aspects of our

criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem, rather

than alleviate it."

Holder said mandatory minimum sentences "breed disrespect for the system. When applied indiscriminately, they do not serve

public safety. They have had a disabling effect on communities. And they are ultimately counterproductive."

Holder said new approaches — which he is calling the "Smart On Crime" initiative — are the result of a Justice Department

review he launched early this year.

The attorney general said some issues are

best handled at the state or local level and said he has directed

federal prosecutors

across the country to develop locally tailored guidelines for

determining when federal charges should be filed, and when they

should not.

"By targeting the most serious offenses,

prosecuting the most dangerous criminals, directing assistance to crime

'hot spots,'

and pursuing new ways to promote public safety, deterrence,

efficiency and fairness — we can become both smarter and tougher

on crime," Holder said.

The attorney general said 17 states have directed money away from prison construction and toward programs and services such

as treatment and supervision that are designed to reduce the problem of repeat offenders.

In Kentucky, legislation has reserved prison

beds for the most serious offenders and refocused resources on

community supervision.

The state, Holder said, is projected to reduce its prison

population by more than 3,000 over the next 10 years, saving more

than $400 million.

He also cited investments in drug treatment

in Texas for non-violent offenders and changes to parole policies which

he said

brought about a reduction in the prison population of more than

5,000 inmates last year. He said similar efforts helped Arkansas

reduce its prison population by more than 1,400. He also pointed

to Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Hawaii

as states that have improved public safety while preserving

limited resources.

Holder also said the department is expanding a policy for considering compassionate release for inmates facing extraordinary

or compelling circumstances, and who pose no threat to the public. He said the expansion will include elderly inmates who

did not commit violent crimes and who have served significant portions of their sentences.