Holder endorses new sentencing guidelines

An officer is reflected in the glass as inmates sit in the county jail in Williston, North Dakota, July 26, 2013.
An officer is reflected in the glass as inmates sit in the county jail in Williston, North Dakota, July 26, 2013.

Attorney General Eric Holder has endorsed a proposal to reduce prison sentences for dealing drugs, another move by the Obama administration to shift federal policy towards drug offenses.

Holder testified before the United States Sentencing Commission on Thursday, where he announced his support for the plan, which would reduce the average sentence for a person convicted of dealing drugs by 11 months. “This straightforward adjustment to sentencing ranges -- while measured in scope -- would nonetheless send a strong message about the fairness of our criminal justice system,” Holder said.

This is the latest step by Holder and the Justice Department to reduce the federal prison population and stem the tide of people, many of the them black and latino, flowing into the criminal justice system thanks to drug crimes. In January, Deputy Attorney General James Cole announced that the DOJ aims to commute more sentences for low-level offenders serving time for crimes that no longer carry such severe penalties. President Obama commuted the sentences of eight people serving long sentences in December.

Last year, Holder announced new charging guidelines for federal prosecutors for non-violent, low-level drug offenses. Those guidelines scaled back on charges that impose harsh mandatory minimum sentences. More than 3,000 people are currently serving life without parole for non-violent drug crimes.

“This focused reliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable -- it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate,” Holder said.

Both Obama and Holder have spoken of the toll the nation’s drug policy has taken on communities of color, and Holder has framed it as a civil rights issue. When he announced the DOJ guidelines in August, Holder said, “There is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws – everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. ”Sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine, eliminated in 2010, disproportionately affected black communities. Black inmates make up 37% of the federal prison population, but only 13% of the general population.

As prison populations have increased, the price of incarcerating men and women has skyrocketed. Approximately a third of the Justice Department’s budget goes toward running the prison system, which houses some 216,000 people.

The Sentencing Commission’s new guidelines would reduce the average sentence of someone convicted of dealing drugs from 62 months to 51 months. It will vote in April on the proposal and would go into effect in November if they are not rejected by Congress.

There is bipartisan support for changes to the criminal justice system. Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois, a Democrat, and Mike Lee of Utah, a Republican, have introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would give judges more discretion in sentencing for non-violent offenses.