Eric Holder: We Can't Jail our Way to Safety


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In the long and drawn out battle between inmate advocacy groups and the U.S. Justice Department regarding the efficacy of mandatory minimum sentences, a stalemate has been finally struck. Eric Holder, Attorney General of the United States, has come out against the decades-old policy in a speech at the San Francisco American Bar Association.

The Washington Post reports that in his speech, Holder referred to a new Justice Department prison reform plan that would reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenders without ties to gangs or organized crime as well as the elderly. The plan is to become the central point of Holder's tenure as attorney general.

In excerpts from his speech, Holder calls for Americans to "face the reality that, as it stands, our [prison] system is, in too many ways, broken... with an outsized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, to deter and to rehabilitate — not merely to warehouse and to forget... it imposes a significant economic burden — totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone — and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate."

Reuters describes other parts of the plan, which might include new local guidelines to help decide if a case should be charged federally and a new path for releasing some federal prisoners "facing extraordinary or compelling circumstances." Holder himself personally would like to see federal judges given the opportunity to divert from the mandatory minimum, but that would require actual changes to the law.

The New York Times presented information from a memorandum detailing how the new policy would be carried out, a memo that is being sent by Holder's office to all United States attorney offices. According to the memo, prosecutors will not be permitted to write a mass or quantity of drugs on indictments for defendants who meet specific criteria (they are not violent, they didn't sell drugs to minors, they don't lead a gang or drug cartel, and they have little history of criminality).

The Times used a hypothetical example of a defendant who sold five kilos of cocaine, which typically triggers a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence. Under the new policy, prosecutors would simply write in that he was accused of "conspiring to distribute cocaine" and that such a defendant could potentially receive a sentence of less than the 10 years called for by the mandatory minimum sentencing law.

The American prison system contains 25 percent of the world's prisoners while the United States represents roughly 5 percent of the world's population. While the population itself grew by one third since 1980, the prison population has grown by 800 percent.