In a surprise announcement earlier this month, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he is instructing federal prosecutors to stop enforcing the nation's mandatory drug sentencing laws. Instead, prosecutors are asked to process the case in such a way as to avoid triggering the mandatory sentences, which will allow judges to apply lighter punishments.
Mandatory sentencing laws have been controversial for many years. Enacted during a surge of drug-related violence in the 1980s and '90s, these laws force judges to hand down harsh sentences for drug crimes regardless of the circumstances. These sentences generally involve extended prison terms, even for nonviolent, first-time offenders.
It is these nonviolent offenders that the President is seeking to assist. The mandatory sentencing system has long been accused of applying unnecessarily harsh sentences to drug offenders, a system that the Obama administration is now calling "unjust." "Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason," said Attorney General Eric Holder as he unveiled the plan on August 12.
Indeed, the widespread imprisonment of Americans is likely another reason for the recent policy change. America has an enormous problem with prison overpopulation, as our federal prisons are currently nearly 40 percent over their capacity. Approximately half of our prison population was incarcerated for drug crimes.
By sidestepping mandatory sentencing laws, the Obama administration will allow for much softer punishments for first-time, nonviolent offenders while simultaneously easing the strain on our overcrowded prisons.
Of course, this does not mean that a conviction for drug crimes can no longer carry serious consequences: It can, and often will. Those who are facing such charges should consider seeking the assistance of an experienced defense attorney, who can help to present a case on behalf of the accused.
Source: Reuters, "U.S. moves to curb long, mandatory drug sentences" Dan Levine and David Ingram, Aug. 12, 2013