Prosecutors are urged to back mandatory minimum drug sentencing reform

Both Newsweek and the Washington Post reported earlier this year that Attorney General Eric Holder wants nonviolent drug crimes punished less severely. As part of his "Smart on Crime" initiatives, Holder wants to reduce the mandatory minimum sentences for low-level and nonviolent drug offenders. Strict mandatory minimum sentences would be reserved for high-level and/or violent drug traffickers. The proposed lower sentencing ranges would result in a 17 percent decrease in the average length of time for drug offenses and help reduce prison overcrowding.

Holder has given two reasons for the proposed sentencing changes. The first reason is grounded in fiscal responsibility. State and federal governments spent $80 billion on incarceration in 2010. Of the more than 200,000 federal inmates, almost half are serving time for drug-related crimes. The federal government alone spends over $6 billion annually on running the federal prisons. This amounts to approximately one-quarter of the annual budget of the Justice Department. Holder questions whether the current criminal justice system is financially sustainable over the long-haul.

The second reason for reducing the mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders is social and moral in nature. One in every 28 American children now has a parent behind bars. Holder was quoted in Newsweek as saying that the reliance on incarceration for nonviolent drug crimes "comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate." Newsweek notes that African-Americans have been the hardest hit by the crack sentencing guidelines. As a result, according to a spokesperson for the ACLU, African-Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for nonviolent drug crimes as white inmates did for violent crimes.

Convincing Skeptics

Some lawmakers, together with many federal prosecutors, are at odds with Holder over whether the current mandatory minimum sentences — a relic of the 1980s War on Drugs — should be rolled back. Fox News reports that some prosecutors like mandatory minimums since they believe this gives them leverage that can be used to extract information from nonviolent drug offenders, which can be used against drug lords.

In late May, Holder made his case for overhauling the criminal justice system during a closed-door conference of prosecutors meeting in South Carolina. According to National Public Radio, a person familiar with Holder's remarks says that he urged prosecutors to support reducing some drug sentences while refocusing law enforcement resources on those who pose genuine threats to our communities. Holder emphasized that his proposals would result in harsh mandatory minimum sentences remaining for most drug traffickers with add-ons for repeat offenders, those who possess weapons, and leaders of criminal organizations.

After An Arrest

The proposal to roll back the mandatory minimums, even if implemented, would not guarantee that someone before the court on a nonviolent drug related charge will automatically receive a light sentence. Being charged with a crime remains a serious matter. If you are charged with a drug crime — or any crime — the wisest course of action is to discuss your case with an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. The attorney will sit down with you, go over the charge you are facing and explain your legal rights and options in detail. If a plea deal has been offered by the prosecutor, the attorney can help you evaluate it. An experienced criminal law attorney may be able to get the charge reduced to a lesser offense. Indeed, it is possible that you may have one or more defenses to the charge of which you may not be aware.