Holder Steps Forward For Shorter Drug Sentences

Attorney General Eric Holder is before the U.S. Sentencing Commission to support changes in sentencing for drug offenses, which could shave time off prison terms and reduce federal prison populations.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: Senior Justice Department lawyers pledge their support today for a plan that would reduce prison sentences for most people convicted of federal drug crimes. Attorney General Eric Holder told the U.S. Sentencing Commission that he backs the proposal that could cut prison terms for thousands of convicts and save billions of dollars of over time. NPR's Carrie Johnson has the story.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The country's top law enforcement officer says there's a way to save money and keep crime rates low by being smarter about the Justice Department approach to drug offenses.

ERIC HOLDER: By reserving the most severe penalties for dangerous and violent drug traffickers, we can better promote public safety, deterrence and rehabilitation while saving billions of dollars and strengthening communities.

JOHNSON: Eric Holder offered his approval for plans by the U.S. Sentencing Commission that would shave about a year off the sentences of most people convicted of drug crimes, a step that could drop the U.S. prison population by more than 6,000 inmates over the next five years.

HOLDER: We are not retreating from a strong, tough fight against those who would engage in drug trafficking and in violence. What we're talking about is a better approach so that we can keep this country and Mexico more safe.

JOHNSON: Judge Patti Saris chairs the Sentencing Commission, which is evaluating a broad range of criminal justice penalties.

JUDGE PATTI SARIS: Since drug offenders make up the majority of the federal prison populations, drug sentences were a logical place to start.

JOHNSON: Jeremy Haile works at The Sentencing Project, which advocates for reform of drug laws.

JEREMY HAILE: This amendment proposed today is a necessary but an insufficient step.

JOHNSON: Haile says that's because the justice system is so overloaded that it needs a major overhaul.

HAILE: So we need Congress to act to address mandatory minimum penalties. That's the only long-term means of reducing excessive incarceration.

JOHNSON: Bipartisan plans to give judges more discretion and for early release of nonviolent inmates have won support in the Senate Judiciary Committee this year. But efforts in the U.S. House have been a bit slower to develop, and not all prosecutors are on board with these changes.

The National District Attorneys Association says the vast majority of people in federal prison have been, quote, "very bad actors for a long time." The district attorneys say tough penalties for drug crimes help the government get cooperation and make cases against kingpins, and giving felons lighter sentences isn't fair to crime victims and communities that have been devastated by drugs. The Sentencing Commission will hold a vote on the plans next month.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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