DOJ to change policy on mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders

DOJ to change policy on mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders

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[JURIST] US Attorney General Eric Holder [official profile] announced [memorandum] on Monday that the Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] should avoid charging low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with no ties to gangs or drug cartels with crimes carrying mandatory minimum sentences. Holder outlined additional reforms as part of his new “Smart on Crime” plan [text, PDF] during his speech [text] to the American Bar Association [official website] on Monday. With federal sequestration imposing severe cuts, Holder states that federal prosecutors cannot, and should not, charge every defendant accused of violating federal law. In the memorandum detailing the policy change, Holder stated:

We must ensure that our most severe mandatory minimum penalties are reserved for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers. In some cases, mandatory minimum and recidivist enhancement statutes have resulted in unduly harsh sentences and perceived or actual disparities that do not reflect our Principles of Federal Prosecution. Long sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenses do not promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation. Moreover, rising prison costs have resulted in reduced spending on criminal justice initiatives, including spending on law enforcement agents, prosecutors, and prevention and intervention programs. These reductions in public safety spending require us to make our public safety expenditures smarter and more productive.

Holder has also called for greater use of alternatives to incarceration and renewed focus on prevention, stating that “while the aggressive enforcement of federal criminal statutes remains necessary, we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.”

The “war on drugs” is a campaign of prohibition undertaken by the US government and other participating countries to reduce the production, distribution, and consumption of illegal drugs. In June 2011 the Global Commission on Drug Policy [official website] released a report [PDF] critique of the war on drugs, declaring “the global war on drugs has failed.” In May 2012 the US government published an updated drug policy [text], and has described the policy as an alternative to the war on drugs, where success is not measured by the number of arrests made or prisons built. That same month, representatives of Italy, Russia, Sweden, the UK, and the US met in Stockholm to sign a joint statement [text, PDF] in support of a balanced approach combining effective enforcement restricting drugs supplies with efforts to reduce demand and build recovery.