Holder moves to limit mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenders

In a recent speech given before the American Bar Association, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder signaled a shift in how the Justice Department plans to handle drug crimes perpetrated by nonviolent offenders going forward. Specifically, Holder expressed various proposals that are aimed at sidestepping the harsh mandatory prison sentences that nonviolent and low-level drug offenders currently face.

According to Holder, "Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason." Under his recently presented proposals, many nonviolent drug offenders would be spared these mandatory minimum sentences when convicted of federal drug crimes, which would consequently reduce prison populations and save taxpayers billions of dollars.

mandatory prison sentences and their impact on prison population

Even though the United States accounts for just 5 percent of the world's population, it has roughly a quarter of the world's prisoners, according to Holder. In fact, the federal prison population has increased a whopping 800 percent since 1980. Even more astonishing is that nearly half of those incarcerated in federal prisons are serving sentences for drug-related offenses.

It is not hard to deduce that these large U.S. prison populations can at least be partially attributed to mandatory prison sentences for various drug offenses - sentences that are applied the same in cases involving similar amounts of drugs, regardless of the circumstances. For instance, it is possible for nonviolent offenders to receive similar sentences as their violent counterparts.

In the past, these mandatory sentences have even spurred protests by judges who believe them to be disproportionately harsh in certain situations. However, in the end these judges are still required to impose the sentences regardless of their personal beliefs.

justice department's plan regarding mandatory prison sentences

In order to bypass these mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, Holder stated in his recent speech that the Justice Department will instruct federal prosecutors to charge certain nonviolent and low-level drug offenders who have no ties to gangs or criminal organizations in such a way that the current mandatory sentences will not apply. For instance, this will be done but not specifically delineating the amount of drugs involved in the commission of the alleged crime when charging an individual - thus sidestepping the mandatory sentences and leaving the judges more discretion when imposing their own sentences.

Although Holder presented several other proposals, many require congressional approval, so it will likely take some time for these changes to materialize, if ever. Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether these changes will be effective, but they are a step in the right direction.

However, this entire situation does illustrate just how serious drug charges can be. Accordingly, if you are currently facing charges involving drug-related crimes, it is vital to contact a knowledgeable drug-crime defense attorney. A skilled attorney can assist in reviewing the facts of your case and help ensure your rights are protected.