Local impact of AG’s recommended drug case changes

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – Federal prosecutors are being told to stop seeking mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made the announcement Monday.

With nearly half of the nation’s federal inmates serving time for drug related crimes, Holder says we cannot prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation. He wants more emphasis on crime prevention and reentry programs.  He is instructing U.S. Attorneys to develop “specific locally tailored guidelines” in line with national priorities to determine when to file federal charges and to focus on violent criminals and drug kingpins.

With 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. locks up almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners- according to the attorney general. Now he says changes are needed to “reform a broken system.”

“We will start by fundamentally rethinking the notion of mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes.  Some statutes that mandate inflexible sentences, regardless of the individual conduct at issue in a particular case, reduce the discretion available to prosecutors, judges and juries.  Because they oftentimes generate unfairly long sentences, they breed disrespect for the system.  When applied indiscriminately, they do not serve public safety.  They and some of the enforcement priorities we have set have had a destabilizing effect on particular communities, largely poor and of color.  And, applied inappropriately, they are ultimately counterproductive.

This is why I have today mandated a modification of the Justice Department’s charging policies so that certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences.  They now will be charged with offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins,” said Eric Holder, U.S. Attorney General.

Birmingham attorney Eric Guster applauds the decision.

“It’s long overdue, I mean this is, it is about time for something like this to happen because the so-called war on drugs that occurred in the mid-80′s, it was a war on people and particularly minorities and poor people. Because the courts… with crack cocaine the sentences were much higher than powder cocaine, so you had these people who were not represented well or were held to a different standard than the people who could afford it. For example, if you had powdered cocaine you got a lot lighter sentence, but crack cocaine you got a lot heavier sentence. And now attorney general Holder will loosen up the strings and see if something can happen,” said Guster.

“When politicians are campaigning no one wants to talk about fair sentencing guidelines and letting people out of prison because they won’t get elected, but it’s finally coming to a head with overcrowded prisons. The federal system doesn’t have any money to house these people.”

John Carroll, Dean of the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University and a retired federal judge, thinks the Attorney General’s announcement Monday is very significant.

“You know it is because the message from the old war on drugs was prosecute all drug offenses and get the maximum sentence you possibly can. This is a new approach saying to US Attorneys – look don’t prosecute people with small amounts of drugs; don’t prosecute people that you know are not engaged in major drug activity, those sorts of things. So that is a major change,” said Carroll.  “It’s a problem across the country which is what do you do with non-violent drug offenders? It’s particularly a problem in the federal system because they have so many sentences that are mandatory minimum sentences. For example if you are involved in a drug transaction near a school- that automatically adds an amount of time. If you’ve got a firearm, that automatically adds an amount of time, so a first offender can get 30 years for a minor drug offense that’s nonviolent.”

Holder also credits some of the state efforts to reduce the national prison population. Starting in October, Alabama judges will have less discretion over state approved sentencing guidelines for non-violent offenders.  It’s part of an effort to ease prison overcrowding over time. Standards that were considered voluntary will now be presumptive- or automatic- except under special circumstances.

Guster thinks the new presumptive sentencing standards may be a double edged sword for defendants.

“There will be some sentences which will make it a little bit better for defendants however there are some where the judge’s hands are tied and will be required to sentence someone to prison or some other type of sentence. That makes it very difficult because the judge does not have the discretion to take into account a person’s criminal history or if they haven’t been in trouble for 20 years or any other factors like that where they may decide to give someone probation instead of a sentence for prison. So it’s going to be very difficult for some of the judges and a lot more cases will probably go to trial now because you don’t have that discretion,” said Guster.

As for how the presumptive sentencing standards will impact Alabama’s prison system, Carroll thinks it will by and large work to keep more non-violent offenders from serving prolonged sentences in state prison cells.

“You’re not going to run into adding 10 years for this and adding 10 years for that- that’s the problem in the federal system, these mandatory minimums. But still the sentencing guidelines I hope will give the judges some flexibility to, to treat the offender like they ought to be treated,” said Carroll.

To view the full text of Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech, click here.

Copyright 2013 WIAT-TV CBS 42

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