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Attorney General Outlines New Drug Sentencing Reforms

The Justice Department will avoid charging certain low-level and nonviolent drug offenders with crimes that carry mandatory minimums. Attorney General Eric Holder announced this week that the policy shift will allow certain defendants — those without ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels — to avoid mandatory minimum sentences.

Holder also announced that the Justice Department is giving U.S. attorneys throughout the country a greater amount of prosecutorial discretion. Feeling that some issues are best handled at the state or local level, Holder has directed U.S. attorneys to develop specific, locally-tailored guidelines to determine when federal charges should be filed, and when they should not.

The plan intends to lower the overall federal prison population. As part of that same measure, elderly prisoners who committed no violent crimes and served a significant portion of their sentences may be eligible for early release.

Under the drug policy, defendants would 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.

Attempting to correct “unfairness in the justice system,” Holder’s plan for the Department of Justice seeks to avoid the harsh imposition of strict mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug offenders by encouraging alternatives to incarceration and “compassionate release” for non-violent, elderly offenders.

One of the key elements to Holder’s proposal is that drug quantities will now be omitted for minor offenses. This seeks to avoid imposing mandatory minimums which are often based on the weight of drugs associated with the crime. However, the omission of drug weights will be allowed provided the defendant’s crime was non-violent, did not involve a weapon, did not involve sales to minors, ties to gangs or cartels and was not preceded by a significant criminal history.

Policy-wise, this would ensure prosecutors use discretion to cut sentences short only for mostly non-violent, first-time offenders with no gang ties.

This new policy for federal prosecutors does not affect the legality of current federal mandatory minimums, only how prosecutors use their discretion to impose or avoid them. These minimum punishments for drug crimes will not change until Congress changes the laws.

Various state and local jurisdictions have drug diversion programs that allow non-violent or first-time offenders to avoid jail by involving themselves in counseling and/or community service in exchange for the suspension of their sentences.

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