Building on his announcement last month that federal prosecutors would no longer charge some low-level drug offenders with offenses that carry harsh mandatory minimum sentences, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Thursday that this policy would also be applied retroactively to some defendants whose cases are still pending.
Holder made the latest announcement in what he calls a “sweeping review of the federal criminal justice system” at the annual Congressional Black Caucus conference, repeating the crux of the argument against mandatory minimum sentences: “Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long — and for no truly good law enforcement reason.” He noted that the federal prison population has grown by almost 800 percent since 1980, and that almost half of the current population are incarcerated for drug offenses. There’s “no denying that widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels imposes significant human and moral costs — as well as a tremendous economic burden, totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone,” Holder said.
Last month, Holder issued guidance to U.S. attorneys urging them to avert charges with mandatory minimum sentences for some low-level offenders by omitting the quantity of drugs when charges are filed. Quantity of drugs became a measure for sentences during the height of a tough-on-crime era that culminated in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. That law imposed minimum sentences that start at 5 or 10 years and ratchet up quickly from there, based primarily on the amount of drugs — widely recognized as a poor proxy for culpability.
On Thursday, Holder issued another memorandum to prosecutors applying the policy to pending cases. Those low-level offenders who might qualify but have been already been sentenced will get no relief from Holder’s announcement. But for those who have been charged with a crime but not yet been convicted or pleaded guilty, Holder asked prosecutors to revoke a charge that carries a mandatory minimum sentence. For those defendants who are facing a penalty but not yet sentenced, prosecutors are also urged to use their discretion, particularly in the many cases in which a defendant pleaded guilty.
As Congress weighs several bills to reform mandatory minimum sentences regarded even by Republicans like Rand Paul (KY) as deeply unjust, Holder’s latest announcement also keeps up the drumbeat for more widespread criminal justice sentencing reform.
“Some federal drug statutes that mandate inflexible sentences — regardless of the individual conduct at issue in a particular case — do not serve public safety when they’re applied indiscriminately,” Holder said Thursday. “Because they oftentimes generate unfairly long sentences, they breed disrespect for the system. Used inappropriately, they can be counterproductive. And they have had an unmistakable destabilizing effect on particular communities — largely poor and of color.”