Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Tuesday endorsed a plan to shorten prison sentences for certain inmates as part of his pursuit of administrative reforms he says will make the system more fair to minorities and reduce taxpayer costs.
The proposal would make eligible for reduced sentences about 20,000 of nearly 215,000 inmates in federal prisons, the Justice Department said. Nonviolent, low-level drug offenders without deep criminal ties would qualify for retroactive sentences.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets guidelines for sentencing federal inmates, is considering the proposal and may vote on it next month.
In April, the commission voted to lower the base offense for criminals caught possessing various amounts of drugs, shortening the average sentence by about 11 months. Mr. Holder's new proposal would make that guidance retroactive — lowering the base offense for those already serving time.
"If your offense was nonviolent, did not involve a weapon, and you do not have a significant criminal history, then you would be eligible to apply for a reduced sentence in accordance with the new rules approved by the commission in April," Mr. Holder said Tuesday. "Not everyone in prison for a drug-related offense would be eligible. Nor would everyone who is eligible be guaranteed a reduced sentence.
"But this proposal strikes the best balance between protecting public safety and addressing the overcrowding of our prison system that has been exacerbated by unnecessarily long sentences," he said.
Mr. Holder has made sentencing reform one of his signature issues — aggressively advocating change without waiting for congressional approval. The reforms are part of his so-called "Smart on Crime" initiative that was launched in August and aims to align punishment with the severity of the crime.
In March, Mr. Holder advised federal prosecutors not to press judges to impose longer, mandatory-minimum sentences for certain drug offenses before the U.S. Sentencing Commission had voted to approve guidelines to shorten such sentences.
In April, the attorney general said the Justice Department was going to start looking to expedite requests for clemency, particularly from low-level drug offenders.
Mr. Holder has long argued that the federal system is unfair, especially for minorities, and sentencing reform is one way to level the playing field.
According to the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group, more than 60 percent of the people in prison are racial and ethnic minorities. For black men in their 30s, 1-in-10 is in prison or jail on any given day — largely because of drug-related offenses.
Reducing mandatory-minimums also will save the billions of dollars, the Justice Department argues. Maintaining federal prisons devours 25 percent of the Justice's budget, about $6.4 billion annually, according to the department's statistics.
Not all agree that reducing mandatory-minimums is a good idea, and some argue that reform should be effected by Congress, not executive action.
Reducing the amount of time low-level drug offenders serve in jail will lead to fewer drug kingpins being convicted and increase the amount of crime on the streets, a former U.S. attorney testified before a congressional panel last month.
"In reflecting upon my 33 years of public service as a state and federal prosecutor, my experience has clearly shown to me that our success in the pursuit of drug organizations relies upon mandatory-minimum sentences to induce lower-level dealers and conspirators to testify against the higher-level dealers," Eric Evenson told the House Committee on the Judiciary. "Without them, many, if not most, of these lower-level defendants would simply refuse to cooperate and testify."
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has expressed concern over Mr. Holder taking action without waiting for reforms to be made in Congress.
The Senate has a proposal to cut mandatory-minimum drug sentences in half. Sponsored by Sens. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, and Mike Lee, Utah Republican, Senate Bill S1410 is seen as a candidate for floor action before summer recess.
The House is evaluating its own version of the bill, and the House Committee on the Judiciary has been running a series of hearings examining federal over-criminalization and lowering mandatory minimums.
"One ever-present hurdle to reform in this and other areas is the repeated actions by this administration to circumvent Congress' constitutional role in drafting, considering, and passing legislation important to the American people," Mr. Goodlatte said during a May 30 prison reform hearing.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Sentencing Commission held a hearing on whether to make the new guidelines retroactive for current inmates, taking testimony from witnesses, including Georgia U.S. Attorney Sally Yates and Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuel, who formally delivered Mr. Holder's endorsement.
"While we believe finality in sentencing should remain the general rule, and with public safety our foremost goal, we also recognize that sentences imposed for some drug defendants under the current sentencing guidelines are longer than necessary," Mrs. Yates testified. "And this creates a negative impact upon both the public's confidence in the criminal justice system and our prison resources."
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