U.S. Drops Minimum Sentences for Some Drug Offenses

Mike O'Brien

The Obama administration has unveiled major changes to the criminal justice system in an effort to ease America’s prison overcrowding crisis.

Attorney General Eric Holder announced that mandatory minimum sentences in certain drug cases will dropped for non-violent drug offenders with no gang or cartel ties.

In a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco, Mr. Holder said: "We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate - not merely to convict, warehouse and forget."

Under the new reforms, Mr Holder will direct prosecutors who draft indictments for certain drug offences to omit any mention of the quantity of illegal substance involved, so as to avoid triggering a mandatory minimum sentence.

Critics of the present system say that heavy drug sentences have hit minorities hardest. The altest figures from the Federal Bureau of Prisons show that black and Hispanic people are over-represented behind bars, with 37 percent and 34 percent respectively.

There are currently 219,000 federal inmates and U.S. prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity.

Mr. Holder is now advocating sending people convicted of low-level offences to drug treatment and community service programs instead of prison, the BBC reports.

Mandatory minimum terms were created as part of the "war on drugs" in the 1980s. They effectively prevent judges from applying any discretion when sentencing certain drug offences.

The AG said: "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.

"Such legislation will ultimately save our country billions of dollars while keeping us safe."

Mr. Holder also announced an expanded compassionate release program for inmates facing certain circumstances and who pose no threat to the public.

The program will chiefly apply to elderly prisoners who did not commit violent crimes and who have already served a large portion of their sentences.