Attorney General Eric Holder expressed support Thursday for a proposal
by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to amend its recommended sentences.
The guidelines are part of a bigger recalibration of the war on drugs.
By Elizabeth Barber
The Obama administration on Thursday signaled its support for a
proposal to cut prison sentences for nonviolent federal drug
offenders, as part of its broader effort to overhaul policies on drug
crime and reduce the vast — and expensive — size of the prison
In a speech before the U.S. Sentencing Commission, Attorney General
Eric Holder expressed support for the commission’s proposal to amend
its recommended sentences for federal nonviolent drug crimes. The
measure would cut the average prison sentence for a federal drug
defendant by about 11 months, and it would apply to almost 70 percent
of defendants convicted of federal drug offenses in the future,
according to the Department of Justice (DOJ).
The guidelines, part of a bigger recalibration of America’s war on
drugs, would marshal government money to go after violent drug
traffickers with long sentences, putting funds where they count the
most, Mr. Holder said. The changes would also give nonviolent drug
offenders — who are disproportionately minorities — a better shot at
rehabilitation, and it would ease the toll that long prison sentences
take not just on prisoners, but on the communities they leave, Holder
Overall, the reduced sentences would de-bloat a hefty prison budget,
nixing about 6,550 inmates from the federal prison system over five
years — a point that has brought such policies considerable bipartisan
support in Congress, he said. State and federal governments spent a
total of about $80 billion on prisons in 2010 alone, he said.
The new guidelines “would help to rein in federal prison spending
while focusing limited resources on the most serious threats to public
safety,” Holder testified, adding that America’s “reliance on
incarceration is not just financially unsustainable — it comes with
human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”
“This straightforward adjustment to sentencing ranges — while measured
in scope — would nonetheless send a strong message about the fairness
of our criminal justice system,” he said.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission, a presidentially appointed group over
which Holder has no direct authority, is charged with voting on
guidelines that address how long federal judges should sentence
defendants for various crimes. It is not expected to vote on the
proposal until late April, and the new sentencing guidelines would not
go into effect until the fall, if passed.
Still, Holder has asked prosecutors not to object if defense lawyers
before then propose sentences consistent with the prospective
However, only Congress, not the commission, has the power to change
mandatory minimum sentences. Legislation before lawmakers, called the
Smarter Sentencing Act, would cut many federal mandatory minimum
sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, some of them by half.
Holder’s speech comes after his call in front of the American Bar
Association last August for a rethinking of how drug crime is handled
in the United States, where almost half of its some 216,000 federal
inmates are doing time for drug-related crimes.
His initiative, called Smart on Crime, asks that the harshest
penalties be reserved for the most dangerous drug criminals and that
more minor drug crimes be penalized with lighter sentences or, if
possible, handled with drug rehabilitation programs, not prison.
Also in his speech before the American Bar Association, Holder
announced a measure allowing some low-level drug offenders with no
connection to major drug trafficking syndicates to avoid severe
The latest proposal, first proposed by the commission at the beginning
of this year, would adjust the drug crimes sentencing table, lowering
by two levels the offense associated with various drug quantities,
according to the DOJ. For example, possession of between 200 and 400
grams of heroin is right now a Level 26 offense, according to the
current guidelines. Under the new guidelines, it would be a Level 24
The proposed measures to cut sentences also come about four years
after President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act to address a
100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. That
disparity in the sentencing, which began in the 1980s, had
disproportionately put poor minorities behind bars for decades-long
terms, since those communities were more likely to use crack, not
powder cocaine, the preferred drug of white, wealthier users.
The Smarter Sentencing Act, which Holder has endorsed, includes
provisions that make the amended sentencing guidelines for
crack/cocaine cases retroactive, alleviating the stiff sentences that
current inmates convicted of crack-related crimes are serving.
In January, the DOJ issued a call for those prisoners to apply for
clemency, potentially meaning changes could happen ahead of