Pubdate: Tue, 13 Aug 2013
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2013 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Joseph Tanfani, Tribune Washington Bureau
Page: 1


Holder Calls for Easing of Harsh Drug Sentences

WASHINGTON - In a sign of growing disenchantment with the war on 
drugs, Republicans joined Democrats and reform advocates Monday in 
praising Attorney General Eric Holder's declaration that it is time 
to rethink get-tough policies that have tied the hands of judges and 
swelled the populations of federal prisons.

The nation's top law enforcement officer, decrying the "moral and 
human costs" of mass incarceration, said he would instruct federal 
prosecutors to change the way they charge some drug offenders to 
avoid triggering mandatory minimum sentencing laws that have 
significantly boosted prison terms.

The federal prison population has exploded, even as populations in 
state prisons have steadily declined.

"The course we are on is far from sustainable," Holder said, speaking 
to the American Bar Association in San Francisco. "As the so-called 
war on drugs enters its fifth decade, we need to ask whether it and 
the approaches that comprise it have been truly effective."

Holder said the Justice Department will increase efforts to find 
alternatives to incarceration and ways to smooth the compassionate 
release of severely ill prisoners who are no longer a threat to the public.

Former prosecutors said the changes probably won't affect a huge 
number of cases. But advocates for drug policy reform said Holder's 
statements were long overdue and could reframe the debate about 
sentencing policy.

"It's the first time a U.S. attorney general has spoken so forcefully 
or offered such a detailed proposal for sentencing reform - and 
particularly notable that he framed the issue in moral terms," said 
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Holder is essentially following the lead of states like Georgia, Ohio 
and Texas, which have reformed sentencing rules, given judges more 
discretion and steered some offenders into treatment.

State prison populations have dropped since 2009, according to 
Justice Department statistics.

Not so in the federal system. There are about 218,950 inmates, an 800 
percent increase since 1980. Nearly 47 percent are drug offenders, 
and prison costs now account for about a third of the Justice 
Department's budget.

Those spiraling costs have helped persuade conservatives to embrace 
sentencing reform.

In March, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., joined with Senate Judiciary 
Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to introduce legislation to 
expand judges' discretion in federal criminal cases. Sens. Dick 
Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, have introduced a bill that 
would ease mandatory sentencing rules.

"I am encouraged that the president and attorney general agree with 
me that mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders promote 
injustice and do not serve public safety," Paul said.

The mandatory sentencing policies once had broad support in Congress. 
In the wake of the cocaine overdose death of basketball star Len Bias 
in 1986, Democrats and Republicans rushed to outdo each other to 
support a law that tied the hands of judges and forced mandatory 
sentences on drug dealers

Many federal judges have chafed at the restrictions. In an opinion 
last year, U.S. District Judge John Gleeson said he was forced to 
impose a five-year sentence on a street-level dealer. "It was not a 
just sentence," he wrote, calling on Holder to change the charging 
guidelines to target drug kingpins, as Congress intended.

There were some voices of opposition.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said 
sentencing reform is a good idea, but Holder should be working with 
Congress rather than "selectively enforcing our laws" and 
overstepping executive power.

Holder's policy change instructs federal prosecutors how to write up 
certain kind of drug cases involving low-level offenders without a 
weapon. In those cases, Holder told prosecutors not to include the 
amount of drugs on charging documents if those amounts would trigger 
the mandatory guidelines.

Holder's new policy will affect only defendants without a 
"significant criminal history," said Matt Kaiser, a Washington-based 
criminal defense attorney and former federal public defender.

"It's not that the change helps nobody," Kaiser said, "but it's so 
close to nobody that the practical effect is negligible."

Christi Parsons contributed.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom