The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

DOJ Announces 'Smart on Crime' Initiative to Address Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Criminal Justice System

August 12, 2013 - Posted by Tyler Lewis

This morning in a speech before the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the U.S. Department of Justice would avoid charging low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who are not tied directly to large-scale trafficking organizations, gangs, or cartels with crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentencing.

“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 in the federal government can become both smarter and tougher on crime,” said Holder.

The U.S. prison system has grown by nearly 300 percent since 1980, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Much of this growth has been fueled by the so-called “War on Drugs” and policies that have incarcerated large numbers of low-level, nonviolent people with drug offenses. According to the Sentencing Project, people incarcerated on a drug charge comprise half of the federal prison population and the number of people incarcerated on a drug charge in state prisons has increased thirteen-fold since 1980.

“Today’s announcement marks the most significant proposal ever put forth by the Justice Department to reform our nation’s disastrous criminal justice system,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “By averting misdirected mandatory minimum sentences that tie the hands of law enforcement, the administration is taking concrete steps to rehabilitate drug users instead of warehousing them in expensive and often violent prisons. And by revisiting the sentencing of some current non-violent inmates who have already paid their debt to society, the Justice Department can reduce the enormous cost of warehousing inmates and start the healing process for families and communities who have been kept from their loved ones for far too long.”

Holder’s announcement is the culmination of a review that he directed the Justice Department to undertake at the beginning of the year. United States attorneys have been instructed to develop “specific, locally-tailored guidelines – consistent with our national priorities” for determining when federal charges should and should not be filed, as well as create strategies for dealing with areas in their jurisdictions that are afflicted with high levels of violence. It comes just on the heels of the introduction of the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 in the U.S. Senate. The bill would give judges more flexibility to impose sentences below the mandatory minimum requirement. It would also allow judges to apply the new crack/powder cocaine sentencing policies under the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 – which reduced the quantity disparity in sentencing between powder and crack cocaine from a ratio of 100-to-1 to 18-to-1 – retroactively to offenders currently incarcerated under the old law.

“It’s clear – as we come together today – that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason. It’s clear, at a basic level, that 20th-century criminal justice solutions are not adequate to overcome our 21st-century challenges. And it is well past time to implement common sense changes that will foster safer communities from coast to coast,” said Holder.

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