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Holder Decries 'Draconian Mandatory Minimum Sentences'

The sun sets behind a guard tower at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.
Scott Olson
AFP/Getty Images
The sun sets behind a guard tower at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.

(We put a new top on this post at 1:40 p.m. ET.)

Arguing that it is "well past time to address persistent needs and unwarranted disparities," Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday laid out more of the Obama administration's thinking on changes it wants to make to the way nonviolent offenders are prosecuted and how they are punished.

"Our system is in too many ways broken," Holder told the American Bar Association at its annual meeting in San Francisco. "The course we are on is far from sustainable."

Focusing in large part on what he referred to as the so-called war on drugs and the millions of people it has put in prison, Holder said incarceration should be to "punish, deter and to rehabilitate, not to merely warehouse and forget."

Holder also said he is directing U.S. attorneys not to prosecute every case that comes across their desks if it could also be dealt with by state or local authorities, and to develop "specific, locally tailored guidelines" for how their offices will handle such decisions.

In addition, the attorney general made the case that by focusing on the most serious crimes and most violent offenders who are accused of violating federal laws, "we in the federal government can become both smarter and tougher on crime."

Addressing the issue of overcrowded prisons, Holder said U.S. authorities have become "coldly efficient in our incarceration efforts" — but at "human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate."

He said the fact that "black male offenders" are on average given prison sentences that are "20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes ... isn't just unacceptable, it is shameful."

Holder also focused on "mandatory minimum sentences," which he said can put many nonviolent offenders in prison for far too long. He has directed his department's prosecutors, Holder said, to "modify the Justice Department's charging policies" so that low-level, non-violent offenders "will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences."

"This is our chance," Holder said, to bring many of the nation's laws "in line with our most sacred values" and to create "a more just society." He called it "our solemn obligation."

Our original post:

Shorter prison sentences for nonviolent criminals, more programs to treat those convicted of low-level drug-related crimes and reductions in the number of crimes that carry "mandatory minimum sentences." Those are among the things Attorney General Eric Holder will suggest Monday when he addresses the American Bar Association in San Francisco.

NPR's Carrie Johnson previewed Holder's address for Morning Edition last Wednesday. Monday, The Associated Press added some more details about what he's planning to say — based on his remarks "as prepared for delivery." The wire service writes that:

-- Holder will say he's changing Justice Department policy "so that low-level, non-violent drug offenders with no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels won't be charged with offenses that impose mandatory minimum sentences."

-- The attorney general will tell the ABA that mandatory minimum sentences "breed disrespect for the system. When applied indiscriminately, they do not serve public safety. They have had a disabling effect on communities. And they are ultimately counterproductive."

TheLos Angeles Times adds that Holder is expected to say that "too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no good law enforcement reason. ... While the aggressive enforcement of federal criminal statutes remains necessary, we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation."

Earlier this year, as Carrie reported, Holder told NPR that:

-- "The war on drugs is now 30, 40 years old. ... There have been a lot of unintended consequences. There's been a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color."

-- "We can certainly change our enforcement priorities."

Note: That's a question, not a scientific survey of public opinion.

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.

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