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Attorney General Eric Holder asks for ABA’s help in efforts to overhaul criminal justice system


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Attorney General Eric Holder asks for ABA’s help in efforts to overhaul criminal justice system

By Gabriel McIntosh

Attorney General Eric Holder unveiled a comprehensive plan that seeks to ease federal prison overcrowding and correct unfairness in the justice system during a speech Monday at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in San Francisco.


Holder asked the ABA and its members to help in this effort “to take bold steps to reform and strengthen America’s criminal justice system -— in concrete and fundamental ways.”

“We must pledge — as legal professionals — to lend our talents, our training and our diverse perspectives to advancing this critical work,” he said.

Under the plan, the Justice Department will modify its policies so that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders without ties to large-scale drug organizations or gangs will not be charged with offenses that impose “draconian mandatory minimum sentences,” the attorney general said.

“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” Holder said. “We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.”

The policy changes, which DOJ attorneys have been working on for months, also include offering “compassionate release” to nonviolent elderly inmates who have served significant portions of their sentences as well as finding alternatives to prison for nonviolent criminals, such as drug treatment and community service initiatives. This way, the most severe penalties are reserved for high-level or violent drug traffickers, the attorney general said.

“By targeting the most serious offenses, prosecuting the most dangerous criminals, directing assistance to crime ‘hot spots,’ and pursuing new ways to promote public safety, deterrence, efficiency, and fairness — we in the federal government can become both smarter and tougher on crime,” Holder said.

The attorney general said he has advised U.S. attorneys across the nation to develop specific, locally tailored guidelines for determining when federal charges should be filed and when they should not.

ABA President Laurel Bellows speaks at the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco

The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration of any country in the world, and the cost of incarceration in the U.S. was $80 billion in 2010. About 47 percent of the more than 219,000 federal inmates behind bars are serving time for drug-related crimes, according to the DOJ. The federal prison population has grown by about 800 percent since 1980 and federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent over capacity.

Holder indicated that the mandatory minimums, imposed during the “war on drugs” in the 1980s and 1990s, that have led to these high incarceration numbers and costs must to be reconsidered.

“We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter, and rehabilitate — not merely to warehouse and forget,” Holder said. “Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems, rather than alleviate them.”

In drug-related cases, the elimination of judicial discretion in sentencing leads to unfairly long sentences, he added, particularly affecting the poor and people of color.

Holder also mentioned “promising” bipartisan legislation in Congress that aims to give judges more discretion in sentencing. “Such legislation will ultimately save our country billions of dollars while keeping us safe,” he said.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., plans to hold a hearing on mandatory minimums next month, and in March, he partnered with Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky to introduce the Justice Safety Valve Act, which addresses mandatory minimums by giving judges more flexibility in sentencing federal crimes. And Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would give judges more discretion in sentencing nonviolent criminals.

The ABA has previously urged the adoption of many of the changes that the attorney general announced Monday, and the ABA opposes legislatively or administratively imposed mandatory minimum sentences or parole, including sentences for drug offenders.

“We have learned a lot since the widespread enactment of draconian, one-size-fits-all mandatory minimum sentencing laws in the 1980s,” ABA President Laurel G. Bellows said. “A growing number of states have enacted ‘smart’ sentencing and corrections laws that place greater reliance on community-based resources, including drug courts, drug treatment, halfway houses and home confinement for low-level drug offenders. These changes have resulted in significant savings to taxpayers while fully protecting public safety.”

“The level of incarceration and the fiscal and human costs under current federal policies are unsustainable,” she added. “Already, the growth in the budget for the Federal Bureau of Prisons is crowding out and resulting in the elimination of vital law enforcement programs. These changes outlined by Attorney General Holder today are welcome and much-needed steps toward bringing the federal system into line with smart, evidence-based policy that will better serve taxpayers and public safety.”

Almost a decade ago, the ABA’s Justice Kennedy Commission — formed after a speech at the 2003 ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco in which Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy criticized the nation’s imprisonment policies and called for the repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for federal crimes — produced a report addressing these problems. It concluded that America’s criminal justice systems rely too heavily on incarceration and need to consider more effective alternatives.