Attorney General Eric Holder testified Thursday in front of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in support of a proposal to reduce prison sentences for low-level drug trafficking crimes. The goal of the proposal is to address the outsized prison population in the United States.
The measure would reduce the base offense and sentencing associated with substance quantities involved in drug dealing crimes, reducing the average sentence by 11 months. The change would impact almost 70 percent of all drug trafficking offenders, as many who are imprisoned for such offenses are nonviolent criminals.
“This straightforward adjustment to sentencing ranges – while measured in scope – would nonetheless send a strong message about the fairness of our criminal justice system,” Holder said at the hearing Thursday. “And it would help to rein in federal prison spending while focusing limited resources on the most serious threats to public safety.”
A drug offender convicted of possession of 500 grams of cocaine or 28 grams of crack receives a prison sentence of 63 to 78 months under current mandatory minimum guidelines. Holder wants terms to be reduced to 51 to 63 months for those substance amounts.
The Sentencing Commission estimates that if adopted, the proposal would reduce the Bureau of Prisons inmate population by 6,550. The government spends almost $83 billion each year on a prison system that has grown by 700 percent in the last 30 years. U.S. prisons are 40 percent over capacity, and half of all inmates are serving time for drug-related crimes.
The proposal is a part of the administration’s efforts to reduce the federal prison population and change the way the government treats non-violent drug offenders. As a part of his “Smart on Crime” initiative, Holder wants to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for such offenses. This move has found bipartisan support in Congress, with both Democrats and Republicans sponsoring a prison reform bill also favored by the administration.
Yet some are critical of the attempts to relax sentencing on drug crimes, saying the administration is jeopardizing strides that have been made to reduce crime. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, argues that “[m]inimum sentencing laws help bring certainty to victims and stability in the criminal justice system.”
The National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, a group representing assistant U.S. attorneys employed by the Department of Justice, said the drug sentencing system does not need to be “fixed.” In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the group said that “we are winning the war against crime” because more criminals are serving longer sentences. The association said no changes should be made to current sentencing law until more is known about how it could impact crime rates.
The Sentencing Commission will vote in April on the proposal to reduce drug trafficking terms, and they would take effect in November if Congress does not oppose them.
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