Attorney Gen. Eric Holder is looking at scaling back sentences on drug-related crimes as a way to ease overcrowding in prisons and begin what could become a major overhaul of the nation’s criminal justice system.
Holder is scheduled to outline the changes Monday in a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco. Among his proposals will be diversion of those convicted of certain low-level drug offenses to treatment centers and community service programs while also expanding existing prison programs to allow release of elderly, non-violent offenders.
His speech could be viewed by some as a pullback on the current trend of “get tough” policies on some criminal offenses while will most likely view the proposals as a long-needed application of political and fiscal reality to the growing problem of overcrowded prisons and a criminal justice system where costs to taxpayers are spiraling out of control.
Others may see the speech as an attempt to divert attention away from the Obama administration’s current problems with National Security Agency spying on Americans and Holder’s questionable actions as Attorney General.
In prepared remarks released by his office, Holder plans to say:
We need to ensure that incarceration if used to punish, deter and rehabilitate — not merely to convict, warehouse and forget. By targeting the most serious offenses, prosecuting the most dangerous criminals, directing assistance to crime ‘hot spots,” and pursuing new ways to promote public safety, deterrence, efficiency and fairness — we can become both smarter and tougher on crime.
Holder will note that 17 states are currently moving money away from new prison construction and towards programs and services that provide efforts aimed at treatment and reduction of repeat offenders. He will note that even “get tough” states like Texas is moving away from prison sentences and towards programs for non-violent offenders that has reduced prison populations by more than 5,000 inmates.
The justice department, he will say, is already expanding an existing policy that considers “compassionate release” for inmates that face “extraordinary and compelling circumstances” and pose no threat to the pubic.
Holder’s proposals could fly in the face of moves in many states to hand down tougher prison sentences on many crimes, including non-violent “white collar” infractions and to promote a “no tolerance” attitude.
The Attorney General will note the focus for the time being is on federal crimes but will hope that the approach carries over to state crimes and justice systems.