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Holder Seeking Reduced Sentences for Prisoners Held on Drug Charges

The attorney general's latest proposal falls in line with a wider goal of pulling back on the drug war.


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By McCarton Ackerman


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A new proposal led by Attorney General Eric Holder could result in shorter sentences for as many as 20,000 currently incarcerated prisoners.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission already voted in April to reduce sentences for future nonviolent drug offenders, but a new Justice Department proposal set to be voted on next month would make some current prisoners retroactively eligible for reduced sentences. Holder is hoping to create the change as part of his “Smart on Crime” campaign, which frequently cites data that the U.S. holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, despite only being responsible for five percent of the population.

The proposal would reduce sentences by an average of 23 months for those prisoners already in the system who qualify. Eligible prisoners could not be incarcerated for crimes not related to weapons or violence and would need to have a lack of “significant” criminal history. Although not all prisoners who apply for reduced sentences would be able to qualify or even receive them, Holder estimates it could positively affect up to nine percent of the current federal prison population.

The proposal is not entirely a bipartisan effort, with some Republicans arguing that the Obama administration is proposing making changes without congressional approval. However, Holder has received support from some conservatives on the measure. He said in a statement that "this proposal strikes the best balance between protecting public safety and addressing the overcrowding of our prison system that has been exacerbated by unnecessarily long sentences."

Last April, Holder expressed a willingness to engage in a conversation about reclassifying marijuana in the federal Controlled Substance Act. It is currently listed as a Schedule I drug, putting it in the same category as heroin and crack cocaine. Holder stated that the administration is “more than glad to work with Congress if there is a desire to look at and reexamine how the drug is scheduled.”

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