Attorney General Eric Holder will announce today that the Justice Department will no longer ask for mandatory minimum sentences for many federal drug crimes.
Many states like California are already giving some of these felons early releases due to overcrowding so it's not like Holder is doing anything radical. Indeed, even some conservatives have criticized federal drug policy, pointing out that long sentences don't appear to deter drug use nor have they made much of a dent in distribution.
"Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no good law enforcement reason," Holder will tell an American Bar Association meeting in San Francisco, according to prepared remarks.
"While the aggressive enforcement of federal criminal statutes remains necessary, we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation," he will say.
Calling laws which require minimum prison time "draconian," Holder will order federal prosecutors to avoid charging non-violent drug offenders without ties to gangs or drug cartels under those crimes.
Instead they will push community service or rehabilitation instead of prison and Holder will also seek to expand a program that helps release elderly, non-violent inmates from incarceration to ease prison overcrowding.
Prosecutors will seek sentences for drug defendants "better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins," Holder will say.
Reports said Holder and his top aides will travel across the country in the weeks ahead to point to successful efforts to reform sentencing laws and redirect nonviolent offenders from prison.
Advocates of the changes say they will help address prison overcrowding in the U.S. and allow federal prosecutors to better target high-level drug criminals.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) released legislation earlier this year that would help scale back mandatory minimum laws by giving federal judges more authority to choose lesser sentences.
In his speech, Holder will push for lawmakers to pass that legislation, arguing that it could "save our country billions of dollars."
The legalization issue is separate from the incarceration issue, so I don't see much of a problem with this. It's a common sense response to a real world problem; there really isn't any reason to keep some of these drug offenders in jail for a decade or more.
The only problems I see with it is that beds in rehab centers that accept court-ordered treatment cases are backlogged for up to 6 months. There is also a question of those without insurance having their rehab funded by the taxpayer. This will mean that we're going to have to get serious about building more in-patient facilities and paying for the treatment. It won't be cheap. And since the recidivism rate for coke addicts is still over 95%, it is likely that many of these drug addicts will have to undergo several stints at a facility before they're able to deal with their addiction.
It's one thing for Holder to announce a welcome change in policy. But dealing with the fiscal, moral, and practical implications of that change will be the key to its success or failure.