U.S. Attorney Gen. Abandons Federal Mandatory Minimum Sentencing For Nonviolent Drug Offenders

August, 12, 2013

Since the inception of the War on Drugs in the 1980’s, mandatory minimum prison sentences have been in place for drug related charges at the federal level.  The effect of these mandatory minimum sentences is that judges were not afforded the discretion to impose shorter sentences based on the specific circumstances of the case.  Nonviolent drug offenders without criminal histories or ties to large-scale organizations would be sentenced to the same amount of incarceration time as drug kingpins or violent dealers.  As a result, prisons across the U.S. have suffered from rampant overpopulation. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, federal prisons are operating at nearly 40% above capacity and hold more than 219,000 inmates.  Of these prisoners, nearly half are incarcerated on drug related convictions.  Thirty percent of the federal drug convictions each year are of African Americans, and Hispanics account for 40% of the convictions.  At a state level, 225,000 prisoners are there for drug offenses, and it is estimated that anywhere between nine and ten million prisoners go through local jails each year. 

Today, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he is changing the Justice Department’s policy of using mandatory minimum sentences at the federal level, and he encourages state and local authorities to follow suit and reconsider their own sentencing policies. “Low-level, nonviolent” drug offenders will no longer face mandatory minimum prison sentences.  "Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason," Holder said.  Certain low-level offenders "who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels" will not be charged with offenses that impose stiff mandatory minimum sentences. Rather, he said, they will be charged with offenses that carry sentences "better suited to their individual conduct." Aggressive enforcement of federal criminal laws is necessary, but "we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation," Holder said.  In addition to no longer prosecuting low level drug offenders under mandatory minimum sentences, Holder aims to expand compassionate release for inmates who no longer pose a danger to society such as elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes or who have served significant portions of their sentences.

Holder’s announcement today has been met with bipartisan support.  What remains to be seen is how the 94 U.S. Attorneys’ offices across the country, now given the authority to exercise discretion in handling their drug related criminal cases, will implement these changes. 

Authored: Malena Dinwoodie, Stratos Law LLC



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