Attorney General Eric Holder received a flood of praise from attorneys, politicians and policy advocates Monday for announcing that federal prosecutors would no longer slap nonviolent drug offenders with charges that carry inflexible mandatory-minimum sentences.
Most criticism he received was focused on how the unexpected policy change was enacted.
"From Obamacare to immigration, this administration is constantly picking and choosing which laws to enforce, contrary to the tenants established under our Constitution," said a statement provided to U.S. News by Catherine Frazier, press secretary for Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
"This administration would do well to actually work with Congress on policies it wants to implement instead of consistently going around it."
Holder nemesis Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., echoed the sentiment.
"While reducing mandatory minimums may be good policy, I hope the Attorney General fully understands that Congress should address the issue through legislation," Gosar said. "As I have repeatedly said, the Attorney General does not get to pick which laws to enforce and which ones to toss out of the window."
Gosar was among Holder's most outspoken critics over the ATF's Operation Fast and Furious gun-running investigation, which lost track of guns that were later tied to murders. He recruited 114 co-sponsors for a resolution of no confidence in Holder, but the House instead voted 255-67 in June 2012 – with 17 Democrats joining Republicans – to find Holder in contempt of Congress for refusing to provide documents on the program.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, also criticized the announcement. Both were quoted by The Associated Press Monday accusing the administration of unlawfully and "unilaterally" ignoring the law.
At least one Republican, however, offered unadulterated praise for Holder's decision.
"I am encouraged that the President and Attorney General agree with me that mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders promote injustice and do not serve public safety," Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said in a statement released Monday. "The Administration's involvement in this bipartisan issue is a welcome development."
Paul is sponsoring the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, one of two serious efforts to undo the mandatory sentences. The bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Angus King, I-Maine, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., and proposes to "prevent unjust and irrational criminal punishments" by allowing judges to dole out sentences below the current mandatory minimums. The House version is sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va.
Another bill to reform the laws, the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013, is sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and co-sponsored by Leahy and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. It would reduce minimum sentences for various drug offenses and introduce prison overcrowding as a sentencing consideration.
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which established many of the mandatory minimum penalties, was approved by 97 senators and 91 percent of House members, according to vote records posted to website GovTrack.us.
Since 1980, Holder noted in his Monday address to the American Bar Association, the federal prison population has grown 800 percent. As of June, 47 percent of the more than 200,000 federal prisoners were locked up for drug charges, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Although Holder did unilaterally announce that non-violent drug offenders would no longer "be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences," he also said the administration would work with members of Congress toward changing existing laws.
A spokesperson for the Fraternal Order of Police, often a bulwark in favor of tough law enforcement policies, told U.S. News the organization waiting for more details from the Justice Department before taking a position on the policy change.