U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made a major announcement this week regarding prison sentences for drug offenses.
Speaking to the American Bar Association in San Francisco, Holder said the prison population is promoting the changes.
“With an outsized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate—not merely to warehouse and forget,” he said.
Prison sentences for drug charges became popular in the late 1980s with the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which was meant to combat the crack epidemic at the time. Long-term prison sentences for all drug crimes were put in place by legislators to prevent increased drug use.
Currently, the minimum sentence for drug crimes is a minimum of five years in prison without parole.
“I have today mandated a modification of the Justice Department’s charging policies so that certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences,” Holder said.
A recent report indicates that nearly half of those in the prison population have been convicted on drug charges. The Congressional Research Service outlines that about 20 percent of those inmates were charged with high-level drug trafficking, and according to the report, the rest were convicted of drug dealing or drug possession.
“These are issues the president and I have been talking about for as long as I’ve known him—issues he’s felt strongly about ever since his days as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago,” said Holder. “He’s worked hard over the years to protect our communities, to keep violent criminals off our streets and to make sure those who break the law are held accountable. And he’s also made it part of his mission to reduce the disparities in our criminal justice system.”
Holder said that the Justice Department spent $80 billion on incarceration costs in 2010. He added that states should have prison space for violent criminals and send those convicted on drug charges into treatment. So far, 17 states use the Justice Reinvestment plan, which redirects criminal justice resources into community-based treatment.
New York most notably made changes to the 1973 Rockefeller drug laws, which dole out harsh prison sentences even for those acting as lookouts during drug deals. According to the Pew Charitable Trust and the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services, by June 2012, the number of drug offenders in state prisons decreased by more than 30 percent.
“As the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ enters its fifth decade, we need to ask whether it—and the approaches that comprise it—have been truly effective and build on the administration’s efforts, led by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, to usher in a new approach,” said Holder. “And with an outsized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate—not merely to warehouse and forget.”