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Americas

US to ease sentences for non-violent drug offences

© Photo: AFP

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2013-08-13

Attorney General Eric Holder (pictured) on Monday announced plans to change the US justice system in order to reduce prison sentences and favour treatment for nonviolent drug offenders.

The US Department of Justice is planning a major reform to drug sentencing that would reduce the time nonviolent drug offenders spend locked behind bars and help tackle overcrowding in America’s prisons.

Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday outlined the status of broad efforts to change sentencing policies across the country in a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco.

“I have today mandated a modification of the Justice Department's charging policies so that certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences,” Holder said.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws popular in the 1980s and 1990s require harsh, automatic prison terms for people convicted of certain crimes, and have disproportionably affected drug offenders.

Federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity and hold more than 219,000 inmates. The latest statistics from the Federal Bureau of Prisons say 47% of inmates are there for drug offences, many of them with substance use disorders.

The US accounts for five percent of the world population but nearly a quarter of all people imprisoned, Holder noted.

President Barack Obama's top lawman said he would seek to send low-level offenders to drug treatment and community service programs instead of prison, and give more discretionary powers to judges at the local level.

He said he would also expand a policy that considers compassionate release for inmates facing extraordinary or compelling circumstances and who pose no threat to the public.

Bi-partisan support

Right on Crime, a conservative advocacy group, said it welcomed Holder’s remarks as a “wonderful start” at the federal level, noting that many states, including Texas, South Dakota and Georgia, had already introduced such measures in recent years.

“The most recent statistics show that the prison population has dropped in states that have enacted similar reforms. But the prison population was still going up at the federal level,” Vikrant Reddy, a policy analyst with Right on Crime, told FRANCE 24.

The left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union also welcomed the reforms presented by the Attorney General.

“Today, the attorney general is taking crucial steps to tackle our bloated federal mass incarceration crisis, and we are thrilled by these long-awaited developments,” the group said in a statement.

Right on Crime’s Reddy said he hoped Holder’s remarks would make people pay more attention to bi-partisan legislation on the issue that is already working its way through Congress.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a Republican, and Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, introduced a bill in March giving judges more leeway in sentencing drug offenders below the mandatory minimums.

In July, another bi-partisan bill was introduced in the lower chamber House of Representatives that would enable some "low-risk" prisoners to be released and serve the remainder of their sentences in a halfway house or in home confinement.

Holder said Monday he hoped Congress would pass new legislation but that in the meantime he has mandated a modification of the Justice Department's charging policies.

Date created : 2013-08-12

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