Attorney General Backs Move That Could Shorten Thousands Of Drug Sentences

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder CREDIT: AP PHOTO/J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder CREDIT: AP PHOTO/J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE

A change to a little-known agency’s guidelines for judges that could shorten thousands of drug sentences by a year got a big endorsement Thursday from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

At a U.S. Sentencing Commission hearing on proposed changes to the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, Holder reprised his message of the past few months that “certain types of cases result in too many Americans going to prison for too long, and at times for no truly good public safety reason.” The line has been central to Holder’s Smart on Crime initiative, which aims to reduce the United States’ bloated prison system by reforming draconian sentences and scaling back zealous prosecutions for non-violent crimes.

A proposed amendment from the U.S. Sentencing Commission would change the guidelines judges are required to consult when sentencing particular sets of drug offenders. In some cases, harsh statutory mandatory minimum sentences apply to drug crimes and require judges to impose a particular sentence. But when those laws don’t apply, judges turn to a separate set of guidelines, which were developed based on the same scheme that recommends sentences based on the quantity of drugs involved in the offense, rather than the nature of the offense or the role of the defendant. The amendment now being considered would correct recommendations that actually call for even harsher sentences than the comparable mandatory minimums, and could have a dramatic impact on the federal prison population.

According to Department of Justice estimates, the change would impact nearly 70 percent of all federal drug trafficking offenders, and reduce sentences by an average of 18 percent. Within five years, the Sentencing Commission projects that some 6,550 inmates could be released. Decreasing the prison population would also yield monetary savings that Holder said Thursday could be directed toward hiring more prosecutors and federal agents.


The proposed amendment is subject to another vote by the Sentencing Commission, followed by congressional approval. But endorsing the amendment Thursday, Holder also announced that he would direct his prosecutors not to seek the longer sentences starting now.

“Although the United States comprises just five percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners,” he reminded the commission. “One in 28 American children currently has a parent behind bars. State and federal governments spent a combined $80 billion on incarceration during 2010 alone. And as you know — of the more than 216,000 current federal inmates — nearly half are serving time for drug-related crimes.”

Holder has previously directed prosecutors not to seek mandatory minimum sentences against some drug defendants, and not to target marijuana offenders complying with robust state laws. These instructions, however, do not bind prosecutors, nor do they insulate anyone from a particular prosecution or sentence.

In fact, even the Sentencing Guidelines amendment, if enacted, is “modest” in comparison to the vast scope of the problem, as Commission Chair Patti B. Saris said in January.

“The real solution rests with Congress, and we continue to support efforts there to reduce mandatory minimum penalties, consistent with our recent report finding that mandatory minimum penalties are often too severe and sweep too broadly in the drug context, often capturing lower-level players,” Saris said. Two bipartisan bills pending in Congress would reform judicial discretion in sentencing going forward. One of them, the Smarter Sentencing Act, would also make retroactive the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced a gross, racially discriminatory disparity in drug sentencing. Holder and the Obama administration also support these reforms.