Pubdate: Fri, 14 Mar 2014
Source: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (Little Rock, AR)
Copyright: 2014 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc.
Note: Accepts letters to the editor from Arkansas residents only
Author: Matt Apuzzo, New York Times
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 a retrenchment in the war on drugs by the 
administration of President Barack Obama.

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

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 shepherd legitimate marijuana businesses into the 
banking system, which had been off limits.

About a third of the Justice Department's budget goes to the prison 
system, a fact that has helped Holder win conservative allies for 
sentencing changes. He met recently with libertarian-minded 
Republicans in the House and Senate, including members who oppose him 
on many other issues.

But Raymond Morrogh, the top prosecutor in Fairfax County, Va., said 
budget woes were no reason to make sentencing more lenient.

"Shouldn't we consider other areas of the federal budget to trim the 
fat off of, rather than roll the dice with the safety of America's 
communities?" said Morrogh, testifying on behalf of the National 
District Attorneys Association.

He said prosecutors use the threat of tough sentences to persuade 
defendants to cooperate and help the government unravel criminal organizations.

"Rewarding convicted felons with lighter sentences because America 
can't balance its budget doesn't seem fair to both victims of crime 
and the millions of families in America victimized every year by the 
scourge of drugs in America's communities," Morrogh said.

Holder has also described a prison overhaul as a matter of civil 
rights. Blacks are disproportionately represented in prison: They 
make up 13 percent of the nation's population but 37 percent of the 
federal prison population.

The crack epidemic is one of the main reasons the prison population 
has grown so much. In 2010, Congress voted unanimously to reduce the 
100-to-1 disparity between sentences for crack cocaine offenses and 
those for powdered cocaine.

Blacks received harsher sentences under those guidelines because 
crack has been more popular in black neighborhoods, while whites have 
been more likely to use powdered cocaine.

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."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom