Justice Department to Reduce Federal Drug Sentences

By Paul Gaita 03/14/14

Eric Holder seeks to reform the criminal justice system by focusing on national security and financial crimes while reducing the overburdened prisoner population.

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Drug offenders charged with trafficking and other serious but nonviolent crimes will no longer face lengthy mandatory sentences in the federal prison system, Attorney General Eric Holder said on Thursday.

The move is part of Holder’s “Smart on Crime” initiative, which seeks to reform the American criminal justice system by focusing federal efforts on more significant threats like national security, violent crime, and financial fraud while also reducing the overburdened prison population. Holder hopes that the latter will be affected by lowering the range of sentences for people convicted of federal drug crimes.

Under his policy, the trafficking of more than one kilogram of heroin, five kilograms of cocaine, or 280 grams of crack cocaine would receive a sentence of 97 to 121 months rather that the Sentencing Commission’s current requirement of 121 to 151 months. Holder is also advising federal prosecutors to abstain from objecting to prisoner requests for sentence reductions based on these new guidelines, which will allow individuals currently serving prison time for federal drug crimes, especially elderly inmates, to receive reduced sentences. The attorney general also called for the expanded use of prison alternatives like house arrest for nonviolent offenders.

According to the Department of Justice, the plan will impact the sentences of 70 percent of all drug trafficking offenders and remove 6,550 inmates from the federal system within the next five years. Holder’s plan seeks to reverse the explosion in federal prison population caused by more than two decades of tough sentences for drug charges.

According to data culled by authors Steven Raphael and Michael Stoll for their book Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?, drug offenses account for 51 percent of charges against federal inmates. By comparison, inmates convicted on homicide charges accounted for only one percent of the federal prison population.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.