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Monday, August 12, 2013

Holder Scales Back Use Of Harsh Drug Sentences

Prisoners reach through the bars at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Okla., Jan. 18, 2008. Sometimes they use small mirrors to get a glimpse of their neighbors and the correctional officers. (AP)

Prisoners reach through the bars at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Okla., Jan. 18, 2008. Sometimes they use small mirrors to get a glimpse of their neighbors and the correctional officers. (AP)

Attorney General Eric Holder says low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no link with gangs or organized crime will no longer be charged with crimes that impose harsh mandatory minimum sentences.

The U.S. prison population has increased by about one-third since the 1980s, when legislation was passed to get tough on the use of marijuana and crack cocaine.

Holder also announced that older, non-violent inmates will be released if it’s determined they pose no threat to the public.




From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW, and we're getting word from the courtroom here in Boston. Jurors have reached a verdict in the trial of accused Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger. So far we know that he has been found guilty on at least one charge of racketeering and conspiracy, but the jury finds that some of the 19 murders have not been proved. We'll have more details on that, coming up.

YOUNG: Coming out in drips and drabs. But first, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is telling the American Bar Association meeting in San Francisco that we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation, that the current system is unworkable and unjust. He's referring to laws passed in the '80s that imposed the same amount of jail time for possession of five grams of crack cocaine, more common in poor black neighborhoods, as it did for 500 grams of cocaine powder, used more by whites.

Sari Horwitz is covering the Justice Department for The Washington Post. And Sari, with Eric Holder unveiling this new policy on arrests, are people with nonviolent offenses going to be getting out of jail right away?

SARI HORWITZ: Well, a lot of the details are still up in the air about what's going to happen exactly right now. But what we do know is that the attorney general of the United States has announced today that too many Americans go to too many prisons for too long and for no good law enforcement reasons. And he's announcing this comprehensive prison reform package to make really some huge changes in this criminal justice system.

YOUNG: Well, give us some of the changes.

HORWITZ: Well, one of the most important changes is the attorney general is saying that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who don't have ties to gangs or cartels or large-scale organizations are not going to be charged with these offenses that impose and require severe mandatory sentences, for example 10 years for a low-level amount of drugs.

And our prisons are filled with these what are called low-level offenders. I mean, this - if you look at the statistics of our prisons, they're stunning. The United States population since 1980 has increased by about a third, but the prison population has grown by about 800 percent. Our prisons are nearly 40 percent over capacity.

YOUNG: Yeah. You give another stat from the Justice Department that the U.S. has only 5 percent of the world's population but a quarter of the world's incarcerated population. So tell us more about what the attorney general proposes because some of these things he can do, some he can ask states to do. As we're about to hear, some states are already doing it, and we recently saw a report out of Los Angeles, in which Los Angeles police officers were told that 91 violations that previously had been considered infractions they shouldn't be charging people with anymore. So it seems as if cities and states are maybe even ahead on this or deciding not to prosecute certain things. So what is he proposing?

HORWITZ: Yes, the states have really already jumped into this debate and have already made significant changes. What the attorney general is doing is he's giving instructions to his federal prosecutors. There are 94 U.S. attorneys across the country. He's telling them how they should write their criminal complaints when charging low-level drug offenders, to avoid triggering the mandatory minimum sentences.

So for example, if there's a defendant accused of, for example, conspiring to sell five kilograms of cocaine, that would normally set off a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence. And now, the prosecutor would be told don't write that up with those specifics, just say that the defendant conspired to distribute cocaine without saying how much. That's a big change.

YOUNG: Well, what's been the reaction to this?

HORWITZ: It's interesting. I'm getting a lot of reaction today, as you can imagine. I just got - I just heard from Julie Stewart, who is the president of an organization called Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and here's what she says: It's clear the politics are finally catching up with the evidence. The attorney general is saying that in the case of many nonviolent offenders, shorter sentences will actually make us safer because resources will be freed up to target the truly dangerous. His point is that punishment works, but excessive punishment backfires. And he's right.

No, Julie also points out that these are, in her opinion, modest changes, minor tweaks compared to major overhauls that, as you just said, we're seeing at the state level. But, Julie says, they would be a great step in the right direction, and they have bipartisan support and should be acted on immediately.

YOUNG: Well, there is bipartisan support, but are you also hearing criticism?

HORWITZ: You know, I think we're going to hear more criticism as the day goes on, but mostly I've been hearing applause and praise for the attorney general.

YOUNG: Well, and the Justice Department is pointing out that conservatives like Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich have been calling for change in prison policy. So we'll be, as you said, hearing more.

HORWITZ: That's right.

YOUNG: Sari Horwitz, Justice Department reporter for The Washington Post, thanks so much.

HORWITZ: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • PeterBoyle

    It is very sad that the only way change comes is through economics. It is a sad state of affairs when the reason to change laws is because those laws are too expensive, and not because those laws are illogical, repressive, and unfair. But that has been the history of Drug Prohibition since 1939, and most dramatically since Nixon. The price of the War on Drugs has not only been financial, it has cost us dearly in so many other ways. Drug Prohibition was an off-shoot of Alcohol Prohibition, and just as futile, destructive, and full of hidden unintended consequences. Alcohol Prohibition only lasted a few years, but Drug Prohibition has lasted over 80 years. It is very sad that it took economic concerns to start repairing all the damage of the Drug War.

  • Scott B

    Emptying the jails of low-level offenders is good, but they leave disenfranchised. They can’t vote, can’t get jobs, and can’t get social services they’ll need because they can’t get jobs, which makes them more prone to getting re-involved in the drug trade or some other criminal enterprise.

    • Robin Streb

      I always though they could vote as long as they aren’t actively serving a sentence?

  • JD Coley

    What’s the role of privatization of prisons in the dramatic increase in prison populations? It seems like there is a substantial sector of the economy (the prison industry) with a stake in maintaining a high prison population, or even increasing it.

  • Jeff Zucker

    According to the report someone trying to sell 5 kilograms (over 10 pounds) of cocaine will be considered a low level offender. Is that correct?

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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