Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday formally offered the Department of Justice’s full and unfettered support of retroactively reducing the sentences of some prisoners locked-up on federal drug offenses, a plan that could shorten prison time for as many as 20,000 currently incarcerated individuals by an average of 23 months.
Holder’s stance comes roughly two months after the commission voted to reduce the sentences for inmates who do not have significant criminal histories and whose crimes had not included the possession of a dangerous weapon or the use of violence, reserving the harshest penalties for the most serious criminals who pose the greatest threat to public safety, according to the DOJ. Next month, the commission will vote on whether or not the policy should be made retroactive for people currently serving time.
“Under the department’s proposal, if your offense was nonviolent, did not involve a weapon, and you do not have a significant criminal history, then you would be eligible to apply for a reduced sentence in accordance with the new rules approved by the Commission in April,” Holder said in a statement. “Not everyone in prison for a drug-related offense would be eligible. Nor would everyone who is eligible be guaranteed a reduced sentence. But this proposal strikes the best balance between protecting public safety and addressing the overcrowding of our prison system that has been exacerbated by unnecessarily long sentences.”
Holder’s urging is the latest in the Obama administrations retrenchment on the war on drugs and crack-era mandatory minimum sentences that disproportionately impacted poor minorities and non-violent offenders. It is also part of broader efforts to curb the growth of America’s prison population that for decades had swelled under tough sentencing guidelines.
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 50% of the 216,896 inmates held in federal detention are incarcerated on drug offenses. About 16% are incarcerated for weapons, explosives or arson offenses. And just 2.8% are locked-up for homicide, aggravated assault and kidnapping convictions.
Sally Yates, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, told the commission during a hearing on Tuesday that federal drug sentencing under the old structure resulted in “unnecessarily long sentences for some offenders that has resulted in significant prison overcrowding” and that the sentences of those imprisoned based on those guideline “should be moderated.”
Under the new plan supported by the department, Yates said that retro activity would apply only to the category of drug offender who “warrants a less severe sentence and who also poses the least risk of re-offending.”
Holder has described the push to change sentencing laws and prison overhaul efforts as civil rights issues. African-Americans have largely been the target of law enforcement efforts in the so-called war on drugs, which expended countless millions in resources and a disparate impact on poor, inner-city and minority communities.
African-Americans make up just about 13% of the country’s population, but 37% of the federal prison population. The prison population exploded during the mid-80s and 90s, the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic.
Congress in 2010 voted to reduce the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, acknowledging the racial implications of the policy. Crack cocaine, a cheaper and less pure derivative of powder cocaine, had long been more popular in poorer minority communities, whereas whites have been more likely to consume the powder version.
In 2013 President Obama, who has been stingy in the use of his power of commutation, commuted the sentences of eight people serving lengthy sentences for crack-related offences.
At the time, Obama said, “Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness. But it must not be the last.”
“If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” Obama said in a statement. “Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.”