US plans in the works to cut 'counterproductive' mandatory prison terms
AFPSAN FRANCISCO -- The United States announced plans Monday to reduce its use of mandatory sentences for drug offenses in order to tackle a cycle of poverty and incarceration in overcrowded prisons.
August 14, 2013, 11:15 am TWN
Attorney General Eric Holder called minimum jail terms “counterproductive” while noting the need to stay strict but be smarter about fighting crime.
And he warned that, while the total U.S. population has increased by about a third since 1980, the prison population has soared by 800 percent.
The United States accounts for five percent of the world population but nearly a quarter of all people imprisoned, he said in remarks to the American Bar Association.
“Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems, rather than alleviate them,” Holder said.
Of the more than 219,000 people jailed in federal as opposed to state-run prisons, nearly half were convicted of drug-related offenses.
Altogether, inmates in local, state and federal prisons cost the government US$80 billion dollars in 2010 alone, he added, saying it was time for reform.
The U.S. prison population was just shy of an estimated 1.6 million in 2012, the Bureau of Justice Statistics announced last month.
“We will start by fundamentally rethinking the notion of mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes. Some statutes that mandate inflexible sentences — regardless of the individual conduct at issue in a particular case — reduce the discretion available to prosecutors, judges, and juries,” Holder said.
“They breed disrespect for the system. When applied indiscriminately, they do not serve public safety. They — and some of the enforcement priorities we have set — have had a destabilizing effect on particular communities, largely poor and of color,” he added.
“And, applied inappropriately, they are ultimately counterproductive.”
The mandatory minimum sentences were included in the penal code by Congress in 1986 and 1988.
Holder said he hoped Congress would pass new legislation but in the meantime he has mandated a modification of the Justice Department's charging policies.
He said that, under the changes, certain low-level, non-violent 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.
“They now will be charged with offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins,” he said.