WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric Holder announced a series of prison sentencing revisions Monday, but the really big action must take place on Capitol Hill and in individual states.
Calling widespread incarceration "both ineffective and unsustainable," Holder announced that he will direct federal prosecutors to avoid charging low-level, nonviolent drug defendants with crimes that trigger severe mandatory minimum sentences.
Still, most crimes will continue to be prosecuted at the state and local levels, where Holder's policy dictate has no force. And though he effectively denounced federal mandatory minimum prison sentences, it's up to Congress to change the tough-on-crime laws that, until now, have proved politically alluring.
"This is our solemn obligation, as stewards of the law and servants of those whom it protects and empowers, to open a frank and constructive dialogue about the need to reform a broken system," the attorney general said at an American Bar Association meeting in San Francisco.
The Justice Department's new charging policy won praise from groups that have long fought against mandatory minimums.
"These policies will make it more likely that wasteful and harmful federal prison overcrowding will end," declared Laura W. Murphy, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington, D.C., office.
There are currently 219,000 prisoners incarcerated on federal charges, and 47 percent of them are behind bars for drug crimes, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons.
State prisons, by contrast, hold upward of 1.4 million inmates. About 237,000 are serving state time for drug offenses, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Individual states are taking different approaches to their mandatory minimum laws, which piled up during the 1970s, '80s and '90s.
Under the new policy, Holder said, federal prosecutors will charge non-gang-affiliated, nonviolent defendants only with "offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct." This means prosecutors will avoid, for selected defendants, layering on charges that carry mandatory minimums.
Samuel Buell, a professor at Duke University Law School who's a former federal prosecutor, said prosecutors in a number of larger cities — such as New York, Los Angeles and Miami — already have been using similar tactics to avoid mandatory minimums in their plea agreements.
"It's something that's been going on in U.S. attorneys' offices with heavy drug dockets for a number of years. It's just been under the radar," Buell said.