Holder Plans to Reduce Federal Prosecutions and Drug Sentences

By:  Michael Tennant
Holder Plans to Reduce Federal Prosecutions and Drug Sentences

Attorney General Eric Holder announced new Justice Department guidelines aimed at reducing the number of federal prosecutions and prisoners and the sentences of some low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” declared Attorney General Eric Holder (shown in photo) — and he aims to do something about it, he told the American Bar Association (ABA) Monday.

“Although incarceration has a significant role to play in our justice system,” Holder said, “widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable. It imposes a significant economic burden — totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone — and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”

One would be hard-pressed to disagree given the statistics cited by the attorney general. The federal prison population, he said, has grown by nearly 800 percent since 1980, in contrast to population growth of about 33 percent. The United States has just five percent of the world’s population but almost a quarter of its prisoners. There are over 219,000 federal inmates, nearly half of whom are imprisoned for drug-related offenses. Another nine million to 10 million people go through local jails annually. And about 40 percent of former federal prisoners and 60 percent of former state prisoners end up back in the justice system within three years of their release.

To remedy this, Holder announced new Justice Department policies aimed at reducing the number of federal prosecutions and the severity of the charges brought under them.

First, because “some issues are best handled at the state or local level,” Holder said, he has directed U.S. attorneys “to develop specific, locally-tailored guidelines — consistent with our national priorities — for determining when federal charges should be filed, and when they should not.”

While this may be a worthwhile undertaking, no one should mistake it for genuine federalism. Holder is not proposing that the countless unconstitutional federal criminal statues be repealed or simply not enforced. Indeed, the fact that he subsequently touts a variety of federal initiatives — such as the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, which sends federal dollars to local police departments — shows that he is not genuinely concerned with keeping Uncle Sam in his proper place.

Holder’s second major policy change could prove more significant, and it will surely be more controversial.

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Photo of Attorney General Eric Holder: AP Images

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