In remarks to the American Bar Association, Attorney General Eric Holder was to call minimum jail terms “counterproductive,” according to excerpts from his speech released in advance.
Holder says the United States should remain strict but be smarter about tackling crime.
And he warned that, while the total US population has increased by a third since 1980, the prison population has soared by 800 percent.
The United States accounts for five percent of the world population but nearly a quarter of all people imprisoned, he said.
“Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem, rather than alleviate it,” Holder was to say.
And of 219,000 people jailed in federal as opposed to state-run prisons, nearly half were convicted of drug-related offenses.
Altogether, inmates in local, state and federal prisons cost the government $80 billion dollars in 2010 alone, he added, saying it was time for reform.
“We can start by fundamentally rethinking the notion of mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes. Some statutes that mandate inflexible sentences — regardless of the facts or conduct at issue in a particular case — reduce the discretion available to prosecutors, judges, and juries,” Holder said.
He added: “They 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.”
The mandatory minimum sentences were included in the penal code by Congress in 1986 and 1988.
Holder said he hoped Congress would pass new legislation but in the meantime he has mandated a modification of the Justice Department’s charging policies.
Holder said that under the changes 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,” he said, according to a draft of his speech.
In a further effort to ease the prison population, Holder announced a change to allow for early release of elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes and have served significant portions of their sentences.
The American Civil Liberties Union welcomed the changes enthusiastically.
“Today, the attorney general is taking crucial steps to tackle our bloated federal mass incarceration crisis, and we are thrilled by these long-awaited developments,” it said in a statement.
“While today’s announcement is an important step toward a fairer justice system, Congress must change the laws that lock up hundreds of thousands of Americans unfairly and unnecessarily,” the ACLU added.
In 2010 President Barack Obama won passage of a law establishing more equality in sentences for convictions for possessing crack and cocaine. They were stiffer for crack, and most of those convicted of this were black.
That law also did away with mandatory minimum sentences for first time crack possession offenses. It was the first such minimum sentencing elimination since the 1970s.