Pubdate: Fri, 14 Mar 2014
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2014 Hearst Communications Inc.
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


Attorney General Eric Holder is endorsing a proposal that would 
reduce prison sentences for people convicted of dealing drugs, the 
latest sign of the Obama administration's retrenchment in the war on drugs.

In January, the U.S. Sentencing Commission proposed changing federal 
guidelines to lessen the average sentence for drug dealers by about 
one year, to 51 months from 62 months. Holder testified before the 
commission Thursday in support of the plan.

With the support of several Republicans in Congress, the attorney 
general is separately pushing for the elimination of mandatory 
minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. In January, the Justice 
Department issued a call encouraging low-level criminals serving 
lengthy sentences on crack cocaine charges to apply for clemency.

Since the late 1970s, the prison population in the United States has 
ballooned into the world's largest. About 1 in every 100 adults is locked up.

In the federal prison system, the one that would be affected by the 
proposed changes, half of the 215,000 inmates are serving time for 
drug crimes. Under the changes being considered, the federal prison 
population would decrease by about 6,550 inmates over the next five 
years, according to government estimates.

"This overreliance on incarceration is not just financially 
unsustainable," Holder said. "It comes with human and moral costs 
that are impossible to calculate."

The nation's prison population peaked in 2009 at more than 1.6 
million inmates. Since then, as state budgets have tightened and 
crime has hit record low levels, that number has declined each year.

Public attitudes have also changed. Twenty states and the District of 
Columbia have legalized medicinal marijuana, and Colorado and 
Washington have legalized it for recreational purposes.

President Obama has said that marijuana is not that different from 
tobacco and no more dangerous than alcohol, and his administration 
has declined to stand in the way of legalization. Last month, Holder 
announced rules to help bring legitimate marijuana businesses into 
the banking system, which had been off limits.

The crack epidemic is one of the main reasons the prison population 
has grown so much.

The Sentencing Commission writes the guidelines that judges must 
consider. It is soliciting comments on the proposed sentencing 
reductions and will vote, probably in April, on whether to carry them 
out. Unless Congress voted to reject the proposals, the commission's 
changes would go into effect in November.

Until then, the Justice Department said Holder would tell federal 
prosecutors not to oppose any sentence that would fall under the more 
lenient guidelines.

"This straightforward adjustment to sentencing ranges, while measured 
in scope, would nonetheless send a strong message about the fairness 
of our criminal justice system," Holder said. "And it would help to 
rein in federal prison spending while focusing limited resources on 
the most serious threats to public safety."

- -New York Times
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom