WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Eric Holder announced a major shift Monday in federal sentencing policies, targeting long mandatory terms that he said have flooded the nation's prisons with low-level drug offenders and diverted crime-fighting dollars that could be far better spent.
If Holder's policies are implemented aggressively, they could mark one of the most significant changes in the way the federal criminal justice system handles drug cases since the government declared a war on drugs in the 1980s.
As a first step, Holder has instructed federal prosecutors to stop charging many nonviolent drug defendants with offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences. His next step will be working with a bipartisan group in Congress to give judges greater discretion in sentencing.
"We will start by fundamentally rethinking the notion of mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes," Holder told the American Bar Association in San Francisco.
There are currently more than 219,000 federal inmates, and the prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity. Holder said the prison population "has grown at an astonishing rate -- by almost 800 percent" since 1980. Almost half the inmates are serving time for drug-related crimes.
Holder said he also wants to divert people convicted of low-level offenses to drug treatment and community service programs and expand a prison program to allow for release of some elderly, nonviolent offenders.
The speech drew widespread praise, including from some of the people Holder will need most -- Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he is encouraged by the Obama administration's view that mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders promote injustice and do not serve public safety. Paul and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., have introduced legislation to grant federal judges greater flexibility in sentencing. Leahy commended Holder for his efforts on the issue and said his committee will hold a hearing on the bill next month.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said he looked forward to working on the issue with Holder and senators of both parties.
But support was not universal. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said Holder "cannot unilaterally ignore the laws or the limits on his executive powers. While the attorney general has the ability to use prosecutorial discretion in individual cases, that authority does not extend to entire categories of people."
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said whether the law needs to be changed should be decided by the Congress, along with the president.
"Instead we're seeing the president attempt to run roughshod over the direct representatives of the people elected to write the laws," Grassley said. "The overreach by the administration to unilaterally decide which laws to enforce and which laws to ignore is a disturbing trend."
Still, the impact of Holder's initiative could be significant, said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a private group involved in research and policy reform of the criminal justice system.
Blacks and Hispanics probably would benefit the most from a change. Blacks account for about 30 percent of federal drug convictions each year and Hispanics account for 40 percent, according to Mauer.
If state policymakers were to adopt similar policies, the impact of changes at the state level could be even broader. About 225,000 state prisoners are incarcerated for drug offenses, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. One national survey from 15 years ago by the Sentencing Project found that 58 percent of state drug offenders had no history of violence or high-level drug dealing.
"These proportions on state prisoners may have shifted somewhat since that time, but it's still likely that a substantial proportion of state drug offenders fall into that category today," Mauer said.