- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Tuesday that his policy of leniency for non-violent and low-level drug users caused federal drug prosecutions to drop 6 percent last year, which he called a good sign of reform for the nation’s criminal judicial system.

“For years prior to this administration, federal prosecutors were not only encouraged — but required — to always seek the most severe prison sentence possible for all drug cases, no matter the relative risk they posed to public safety,” Mr. Holder said in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington.

Mr. Holder, set to step down soon as leader of the Justice Department, has taken up sentencing reform as one of his legacies while in office. In 2013, he launched the “Smart on Crime” initiative, which gave judges and prosecutors more discretion in punishing drug cases. Much of the focus has centered on “mandatory minimums” — prison sentences that courts are required to hand out to drug offenders, no matter the severity of the offense.

Prison reform advocates have argued the mandatory minimums have led to disproportionate sentences.

The sentencing changes have allowed the federal criminal justice system to “operate more efficiently, by reducing its involvement in low-level criminal activity; more effectively, by targeting the most serious crimes, and more fairly,” Mr. Holder said.

By decriminalizing some types of drug crimes and being more lenient on some sentences, Mr. Holder said he hopes to reduce the nation’s overflowing prison population.

“White the entire U.S. population has increased by about a third since 1980, the federal prison population has grown by almost 800 percent over the same period,” he said.

According to statistics from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the number of drug crimes given mandatory five- or 10-year sentences has dropped, from an average of 14,000 from 2011 to 2013 to barely more than 10,000 in 2014.

Inimai Chettiar, the director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said the sentencing laws have largely gone unchanged from decades past.

“As the ‘80s and ‘90s crime wave occurred, our policies have been focused on increasing sentence lengths on the theory that that would keep crime down,” she said. “The issue with mandatory minimums is that they are largely disproportionate to the crime.”

A study by the Brennan Center found that the rate of incarceration was starting to have less of an effect on the crime rate. Ms. Chettiar said it had reached a point of “diminishing returns.”

“If we were incarcerating solely habitual offenders and people who commit violent crimes you would see more of a drop in the crime rate,” she said. “But what we’ve been focusing on more now is on low-level and non-violent offenders.”

One of the more recent controversial cases came in Florida in 2010. During a domestic dispute, Marissa Alexander said she felt threatened by her estranged husband and fired what she described as a “warning shot.”

The shot missed her husband and no one was injured, but Ms. Alexander was charged with aggravated assault with a firearm and sentenced under mandatory minimum laws to 20 years in prison.

A plea deal for time served saw Ms. Alexander released in January after serving three years. She is currently under a form of house arrest.

Julie Stewart, founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said she applauded Mr. Holder for recognizing that the sentences have “no redeeming value as a policy tool.”

“The consensus in both the legal and academic communities is that these overly harsh sentences don’t improve public safety, reduce recidivism or deter would-be offenders,” she said in a statement. “While we also applaud the Smart on Crime initiative, it’s simply not enough. Congress needs to fix the law.”

A 2014 paper by the conservative Heritage Foundation debating the pros and cons of mandatory minimum sentencing said they had been started in response to widespread discrepancies in punishment.

States, cities and judges would disagree over the severity and proper punishment of some crimes, the paper noted, so mandatory minimums were started in part to unify the nation’s criminal justice system.

“Mandatory minimums guarantee that sentences are uniform throughout the federal system and ensure that individuals are punished commensurate with their moral culpability by hitching the sentence to the crime, not the person,” the paper said. “Having Congress specify the minimum penalty for a specific crime or category of offenses is entirely consistent with the proper functioning of the legislature in the criminal justice processes.”

Some advocates have also expressed concerns that removing mandatory minimums would mean defendants are less likely to agree to plea bargains, knowing that they might be able to get a lenient sentence anyway.

But Mr. Holder said he dismissed these arguments, adding that justice relied on “swift and fair punishment, not on the disproportionate length” of a sentence. “With or without the threat of a mandatory minimum, it will always be in the interest of defendants to cooperate with the government,” he said.

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