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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Non-violent criminals could serve less prison time, thanks to new approaches in the works both in Congress and the Justice Department. Lawmakers from both parties are considering giving judges more power to shorten sentences and do away with some mandatory minimum terms altogether. Plus, Attorney General Eric Holder is preparing to unveil his own criminal justice reforms, as NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Sit down with the attorney general to ask him about his priorities, as NPR did earlier this year, and he'll talk about voting rights and national security. But if you listen a bit longer, Eric Holder gets to this...

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: I think there are too many people in jail for too long and for not necessarily good reasons.

JOHNSON: This is the nation's top law enforcement officer calling for a sea change in the criminal justice system.

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

JOHNSON: That's one reason why the Justice Department's had a group of lawyers working behind the scenes for months on proposals the Attorney General could present as early as next week in a speech to the American Bar Association.

Some of the items are changes Holder can make on his own, like directing U.S. attorneys not to prosecute certain kinds of low-level drug crimes or spending money to send more defendants into treatment instead of prison. Almost half of the 219,000 people currently in federal prison are serving time on drug charges.

HOLDER: Well, we can certainly change our enforcement priorities, and so we have some control in that way. How we deploy our agents, what we tell our prosecutors to charge, but I do think that this would be best done if the executive branch and the legislative branch work together to look at this whole issue and come up with changes that are acceptable to both.

JOHNSON: Late last week, two senators, Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin and Utah Republican Mike Lee moved in that direction. Their bill would give judges more discretion to sentence non violent criminals below the so-called mandatory minimums.

It would also lower mandatory minimums for several drug crimes. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, says he'll hold a hearing on mandatory minimums next month.

SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: They all sound like a great stop crime idea when they were passed. Most of them sound better on paper than in practice.

JOHNSON: That's Leahy talking on C-SPAN last weekend. His partner in the effort is Republican Rand Paul, a Tea Party favorite from Kentucky. They've introduced their own legislation to give judges more power to impose lower sentences and not just in drug crimes.

LEAHY: Doing away with mandatory minimums, giving more discretion to judges, that shouldn't be Republican or Democrat, it just makes good sense.

JOHNSON: The idea has already taken off in nearly two dozen states including Texas, where it won support from prominent conservatives, including Grover Norquist, speaking here for the group, Right on Crime.

GROVER NORQUIST: It's easier to say let's spend a few dollars a day managing you at your home where you can spend time with your family, where you can work, instead of hundreds of dollars a day keeping you in a cell.

JOHNSON: Ohio State University law professor Douglas Berman's been following the criminal justice system for years. With violent crime near record lows, and federal prisons eating up a quarter of the Justice Department budget, Berman says now may be time for change.

DOUGLAS BERMAN: There's the opportunity for action not only on the Hill but maybe in the Obama administration, particularly right now when we're still a little bit away from midterm elections and a long time away from the next presidential election cycle.

JOHNSON: It would be the first major reform since the crack epidemic of the 1980s.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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