Attorney General Eric Holder has come out in favor of mandating major changes to the US criminal justice system. Among the foremost changes, Holder has directed the Justice Department to avoid mandatory minimum sentences in select non-violent drug offenses. Under the new guidelines, nonviolent drug offenders who are not tied to gangs or large drug distribution rings and related organizations will not be charged with the types of offenses that carry severe mandatory minimums.
Holder first announced these and other anticipated changes in an address to the American Bar Association (ABA) in San Francisco, following months of behind the scenes work by attorneys and others at the Justice Department. In his remarks, Holder said “We must face the reality that, as it stands, our system is in too many ways broken.”
One of the most criticized aspects of the current criminal justice system is the outsized prison population compared to the overall population of the US. In a reversal of policy that has stood since the first declaration of the “War on Drugs” by President Richard Nixon in 1971, Holder said that “many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems rather than alleviate them,” a criticism long levied by those supporting the changes Holder is proposing.
US attorneys across the nation have been directed to work on explicit guidelines that address local concerns and issues in order to enact new guiding principles for pressing or foregoing federal charges so that charges will reflect the “offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct,” according to Holder.
Holder is also encouraging the Justice Department to work with other federal departments, such as the Department of Education, to find ways to reduce the offender populations in the early stages before crimes are committed. In his address to the ABA, Holder suggested that by partnering with the Department of Education in particular, the Justice Department would be able to “to confront the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ and those zero-tolerance school discipline policies that do not promote safety.”
With the federal prison system operating almost 40% above capacity, incarcerating over 219,000 inmates, finding more effective ways of reducing the offender population has become a priority. Nearly half of those currently in federal custody are serving time for crimes related to drugs.
These statistics are on top of the estimated 9 to 10 million individuals incarcerated each year in state and local prison systems. According to Illinois Senator Richard Durbin (D), the mandatory minimum laws have “played a huge role in the explosion of the US prison population.” Durbin is one of several lawmakers who recently introduced bills designed to improve the criminal justice system by altering mandatory minimums and providing greater sentencing flexibility to federal judges.
Holder believes that the proposed legislative changes could “save our country billions of dollars.” In addition to revised sentencing and alternative sentencing, such a drug rehabilitation programs in lieu of prison, the Justice Department is working on an expansion of the federal compassionate release guidelines, a measure that could provide greater benefits to the criminal justice system and offenders while further reducing costs.
While Holder has the authority to direct that mandatory minimums be sidestepped, many of the proposed changes will require legislative action. Using successful criminal justice reforms at the state level in places like Kentucky and Texas, Holder hopes to move his programs – and the US criminal justice system as a whole – forward.