- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2014

Reducing the amount of time low-level drug offenders serve in jail will lead to fewer drug kingpins getting convicted and increase the amount of crime on the nation’s streets, a former U.S. attorney testified Friday before a House panel — a direct contradiction of Attorney General Eric Holder’s push to lower mandatory minimums.

“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 Judiciary Committee. “Without them, many, if not most, of these lower-level defendants would simply refuse to cooperate and testify.

“Mandatory minimum sentences and the presumption of pre-trial detention in federal drug arrests have given federal prosecutors and investigative agents the leverage they need to garner witnesses and remove a very serious drug problem in our communities,” Mr. Evenson said. “If this leverage is removed or weakened, then these vital witnesses will become unavailable to prosecutors. In essence, reducing mandatory minimums will substantially diminish our testimonial witnesses, and fewer drug organization leaders will be arrested and convicted.”

In August, Mr. Holder unveiled his “Smart on Crime” initiative, seeking to “reserve strict, mandatory minimum sentences for high-level or violent drug traffickers,” a statement on his website says. Mr. Holder advocated the policy change — which was adopted by the U.S. Sentencing Commission this spring — as a way to reduce the growing Bureau of Prison population and to help eliminate the racial disparities of those serving jail time.

With reduced mandatory minimums, the Justice Department estimates it can shrink the federal prison population by 6,550 people within five years. Of the more than 216,000 federal inmates, nearly half are serving time for drug-related crimes.

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, the bill is seen as a candidate for floor action before summer recess after passing out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in January.

The House is evaluating its own version of the bill and the House Judiciary Committee has been running a series of hearings examining federal over-criminalization and lowering mandatory minimums. Republicans are philosophically divided on the issue, with libertarians who want to reduce the federal role in prisons supporting lowering the minimums, to more conservative establishment types who support the nation’s “tough on crime” stance with higher mandatory minimums.

The The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously in April to reduce sentencing guidelines that could shorten prison stays for about 70 percent of federal drug trafficking defendants, backing Mr. Holder’s proposal. The vote initiative a process that may change the formula used to determine sentences for federal drug offenders. If Congress doesn’t object to the change, it will go into effect Nov. 1.