When Attorney General Eric Holder speaks before the American Bar Association today he will unveil a set of proposals to change federal sentencing laws in order to reduce the prison population. From the Washington Post:
The attorney general can make some of these changes to drug policy on his own. He is giving new instructions to federal prosecutors on how they should write their criminal complaints when charging low-level drug offenders, to avoid triggering the mandatory minimum sentences. Under certain statutes, inflexible sentences for drug crimes are mandated regardless of the facts or conduct in the case, reducing the discretion of prosecutors, judges and juries.
Some of Holder’s other initiatives will require legislative change. Holder is urging passage of legislation with bipartisan support that is aimed at giving federal judges more discretion in applying mandatory minimum sentences to certain drug offenses.
The legislative changes, if adopted, could have a noticeable impact. They would reduce some of the mandatory minimum sentences and give judges more discretion when sentencing non-violent criminals. Of course, these bills are already being debated in Congress and their fate rests completely with Congress. At most Holder can only help add momentum.
The impact of these administrative changes is likely to be mostly symbolic. The changes apply only to low-level, non-violent, offenders without a criminal history or ties to criminal organizations. These are normally the type of cases the federal government does not handle. The vast majority of drug cases is dealt with by the states or referred to the states by federal agencies. Additionally, the proposed administrative changes could possibly make it easier for federal prosecutors to convince people to plea.
Clearly, this is a step in the right direction. It is an acknowledgement that the drug war has failed and minimum sentencing laws grow the prison population at great cost. That is a big admission by the federal government. It signals a real change in thinking and rhetoric.
On a practical level this is only a small step compared to the significant reform necessary to undo decades of misguided policies. Holder could do a lot more than what he is currently proposing.