Saying that it is “well past time to implement common sense changes that will foster safer communities from coast to coast,” U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced, in an Aug. 12 speech to the ABA House of Delegates, a new Department of Justice (DOJ) initiative aimed at reforming and strengthening America’s criminal justice system.
Holder said that the initiative, “Smart on Crime,” is the result of a DOJ review of the criminal justice system that revealed that many aspects of the system may actually exacerbate the vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration that traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. “The reality is, while the aggressive enforcement of federal criminal statutes remains necessary, we cannot prosecute our way to becoming a safer nation,’ he said.
“Smart on Crime” includes the following five principles:
- prioritize prosecutions to focus on the most serious cases;
- reform sentencing to eliminate unfair disparities and reduce overburdened prisons;
- pursue alternatives to incarceration for low-level, non-violent crimes;
- improve reentry to curb repeat offenses and re-victimization; and
- “surge” resources to violence prevention and protecting the most vulnerable populations.
Holder explained that he has mandated a modification of the DOJ charging policy so that certain low-level non-violent 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. These individuals, he said, “will now be charged with offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins.”
In addition, he announced expanded criteria for considering compassionate release of certain non-violent inmates who are not a threat to the public.
There also will be steps to identify and share best practices for enhancing the use of diversion programs such as drug treatment and community services initiatives as effective alternatives to incarceration, he said.
The ABA, an ardent opponent of mandatory minimum sentencing, has been urging reforms in the criminal justice system for many years. In his speech Holder acknowledged the ABA’s history as a “driver of positive change” and asked the association to partner with the DOJ to take the “bold steps” necessary to reform and strengthen the system in concrete and fundamental ways.
Holder indicated that President Obama will continue to reach out to members of Congress from both parties as well as governors, mayors and other leaders to enact legislation building on the criminal justice successes that have been achieved across the country. He noted the support of these efforts by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who have introduced S. 1410, the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013, a bill strongly supported by the ABA.