Attorney General Eric Holder has infuriated U.S. Assistant Attorneys by not waiting for the U.S. Sentencing Commission to recommend reductions of sentencing guidelines for drug offenders and pushing them to prosecute based on his new guidelines.
“We do not join with others who regard our federal justice system as ‘broken’ or in need of major reconstruction,” the National Association of U.S. Assistant Attorneys said in a letter to Mr. Holder in January. “Instead we consider the current federal mandatory minimum sentence framework well constructed and worth preserving.”
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. He launched the initiative without the approval of the U.S. Sentencing Commission — an independent federal agency in charge of setting sentencing guidelines — and told U.S. prosecutors in an internal memo in March not to press judges to impose the longer sentences in the current guidelines if defense attorneys for drug offenders seek shorter sentences that would be permissible under the new policy.
“Holder’s policies have consistently been three to six months ahead of where the U.S. Sentencing Commission has been,” said Mike Walther, a private attorney who has spent 18 years in the Justice Department and previously served as an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Louisiana. “I have no doubt the sentencing commission will uphold his recommendations, but Holder’s definitely taken the lead on this one.”
The Sentencing Commission is to vote Thursday on the lower drug-trafficking sentences. Mr. Holder’s decision to act before the independent agency’s decision has led many on Capitol Hill to question executive overreach.
“The attorney general’s directive, along with contradicting an act of Congress, puts his own front-line drug prosecutors in the unenviable position of either defying their boss or violating their oath of can door to the court,” Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday. “Over the last year, we have all witnessed an extraordinary level of executive overreach by the Obama administration. Time after time, this president has pushed the limits on executive power beyond their constitutional boundaries.”
The assistant U.S. Attorneys, in their letter to Mr. Holder and subsequent letters to members of Congress, said the “merits of mandatory minimums are abundantly clear” in that they reach only the most serious of crimes, target the most serious criminals, provide the attorney’s leverage in securing cooperation from defendants, are able to help establish uniform and consistency in sentencing and protect law-abiding citizens.
However, advocates for revising the mandatory minimums say it’s long overdue. Mr. Holder’s change would reduce the Bureau of Prison population by 6,550 inmates in five years, according to the Justice Department. Of the more than 216,000 federal inmates, nearly half are serving time for drug-related crimes.
Reducing mandatory minimums will save the government billions of dollars and stop what Mr. Holder calls a destructive cycle of drug abuse, crime and incarceration, Justice says. The U.S. spends about $83 billion each year on corrections. Maintaing federal prisons devours 25 percent of the Justice Department’s annual spending, totaling about $6.4 billion annually, according to the department statistics.
Should the sentencing commission’s amendment pass Thursday, it will be sent to Congress, which will have 180 days to make any changes. If it does nothing, the resolution will become effective Nov. 1.