Holder Endorses Proposal to Reduce Drug Sentences

Post Date: March 13, 2014

(New York Times) — Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is endorsing a proposal that would reduce prison sentences for people convicted of dealing drugs, the latest sign of the Obama administration’s retrenchment in the war on drugs.

In January, the United States Sentencing Commission proposed changing federal guidelines to lessen the average sentence for drug dealers by about one year, to 51 months from 62 months. Mr. Holder testified before the commission on Thursday in support of the plan.

With the support of several Republicans in Congress, the attorney general is separately pushing for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. In January, the Justice Department issued a call encouraging low-level criminals serving lengthy sentences on crack cocaine charges to apply for clemency.

Since the late 1970s, the prison population in the United States has ballooned into the world’s largest. About one in every 100 adults is locked up.

In the federal prison system, the one that would be affected by the proposed changes, half of the 215,000 inmates are serving time for drug crimes. Under the changes being considered, the federal prison population would decrease by about 6,550 inmates over the next five years, according to government estimates.

“This overreliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable,” Mr. Holder said. “It comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”

The nation’s prison population peaked in 2009 at more than 1.6 million inmates. Since then, as state budgets have tightened and crime has hit record low levels, that number has declined each year.

Public attitudes have also changed. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have legalized medicinal marijuana, and Colorado and Washington have legalized it for recreational purposes.

President Obama has said that marijuana is not that different from tobacco and no more dangerous than alcohol, and his administration has declined to stand in the way of legalization. Last month, Mr. Holder announced rules to help bring legitimate marijuana businesses into the banking system, which had been off limits.

About a third of the Justice Department’s budget goes to the prison system, a fact that has helped Mr. Holder win conservative allies for sentencing changes. He met recently with libertarian-minded Republicans in the House and Senate, including members who oppose him on many other issues. Read more