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Justice Department to Kill Harsh Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Non-Violent Drug Offenders

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced policy changes aimed at curbing the use of mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders.
 
 
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Attorney General Eric Holder in Washington, D.C. in 2010.
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U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced major criminal justice reforms in a speech Monday aimed at curbing the use of mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders.

In a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco Monday, Holder said that non-violent drug offenders with no ties to gangs or large-scale drug operations will no longer be sentenced with offences that impose mandatory minimums. Those types of sentences have imposed harsh punishments for many low-level drug users and have forced judges to comply with the guidelines--even when the judges disagree with those sentences. Now, mandatory minimum sentences will only be used on high-level and violent drug traffickers.  

The plan is part of a new Justice Department policy Holder is spearheading. In addition to the changes on mandatory minimum sentences, the Justice Department’s changes on drug policy include reducing sentences for elderly, nonviolent prisoners and seeking out alternatives to prison for nonviolent people convicted of committing crimes.

A vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities,” Holder said in his speech Monday, according to speech excerpts published to the Washington Post. “However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem rather than alleviate it.” He also outlined the policy changes by saying that "certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences.  They now will be charged with offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins."

Holder has told 94 federal attorneys around the country to develop local guidelines to implement the new policies. The attorney general is also pushing for legislative changes to give federal judges more discretion in sentencing.

The mandatory minimum sentences Holder wants to change have been part of the devastating war on drugs waged over the past four decades. They have helped lead to large numbers of Black and Latino men being locked up in jail for long periods of time for non-violent drug offences. The mandatory minimums, which have prohibited judges from using discretion to divert low-level offenders to rehabilitation instead of prison, have also helped lead to the huge numbers of Americans in prison. The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world.

Holder said Monday that mandatory minimums “ breed disrespect for the system. When applied indiscriminately, they do not serve public safety. They have had a disabling effect on communities. And they are ultimately counterproductive .”

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Alex Kane is AlterNet's New York-based World editor, and an assistant editor for Mondoweiss. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

 
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