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August 12, 2013

Holder proposes changes in criminal justice system

WASHINGTON — With the U.S. facing massive overcrowding in its prisons, Attorney General Eric Holder is calling for major changes to the nation's criminal justice system that would scale back the use of harsh sentences for certain drug-related crimes.

In remarks prepared for delivery to the American Bar Association in San Francisco, Holder also favors diverting people convicted of low-level offenses to drug treatment and community service programs and expanding a prison program to allow for release of some elderly, non-violent offenders.

"We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate — not merely to convict, warehouse and forget," Holder says in the speech he's scheduled to deliver Monday.

In one important change, the attorney general is altering Justice Department policy so that low-level, non-violent drug offenders with no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels won't be charged with offenses that impose mandatory minimum sentences.

Mandatory minimum prison sentences, a product of the government's war on drugs in the 1980s, limit the discretion of judges to impose shorter prison sentences.

Under the altered policy, the attorney general said defendants will instead be charged with offenses for which accompanying sentences "are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins."

Federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity and hold more than 219,000 inmates — with almost half of them serving time for drug-related crimes and many of them with substance use disorders. In addition, 9 million to 10 million prisoners go through local jails each year. Holder praised state and local law enforcement officials for already instituting some of the types of changes Holder says must be made at the federal level.

Aggressive enforcement of federal criminal laws is necessary, but "we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation," Holder said. "Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem, rather than alleviate it."

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