WASHINGTON - A diverse coalition of lawmakers and civil rights advocates largely embraced Justice Department proposals Monday that would break with harsh punishments for non-violent drug offenders and provide federal prosecutors with more authority on charging offenders.
Attorney General Eric Holder called for the shift in federal criminal justice policy in a speech before the American Bar Association, saying, "Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason.''
The announcement was prompted in large part by the burgeoning costs of a prison system that has grown to nearly 220,000 inmates from 25,000 in 1980. Holder said mandatory minimum sentencing policies exacted "human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.''
Unusual political partnerships, featuring Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, have formed to propose modifications to the mandatory minimum laws.
Durbin called the sentencing laws "outdated" and said they cost taxpayers billions in prison costs.
"Mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses have played a huge role in the explosion of the U.S. prison population,'' Durbin said Monday. "Once seen as a strong deterrent, these mandatory sentences have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to our public safety.''
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who along with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is sponsoring a bill that would provide federal judges more leeway in sentencing non-violent offenders, said he was "encouraged that the president and attorney general agree with me.''
"Mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders promote injustice and do not serve public safety,'' Paul said.
Holder said some changes could be implemented without congressional action, including broader discretion for prosecutors to pursue drug traffickers and cartel leaders over simple drug abusers.
"This means that federal prosecutors cannot - and should not - bring every case or charge every defendant who stands accused of violating federal laws,'' Holder said, adding that policy would be developed to determine "when federal charges should be filed and when they should not.''
The attorney general said a panel of federal prosecutors would examine sentencing disparities in which black offenders received 20% longer prison sentences than whites who were convicted of similar crimes.
"This isn't just unacceptable,'' Holder said, "it is shameful.''
The attorney general said he would implement broader application of early prison release to include not only terminally ill offenders but also elderly inmates who had served substantial portions of their sentences and no longer posed a threat to society.
This year, the Justice Department's inspector general issued a scathing report about its management of thousands of aging and sick offenders, many of whom died while awaiting early release decisions because of their serious infirmities.
Holder's proposals follow a dramatic shift in law enforcement throughout the country in which many state officials already have acknowledged that they can no longer house thousands of low-level offenders who have been targets of especially harsh punishment for more than two decades.
Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts' public safety performance project, said nearly half the states "have taken substantial steps to rein in the size and cost of their correctional systems'' during the past few years.
"The federal government is probably the last to get the message,'' said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group that has long opposed such punishments.
Noting that 25% of the Justice Department's budget funds prison-related operations, Stewart said federal authorities "are feeling the pinch like they haven't felt in decades.''
"I think there is some comfort in coming out at this time because of all of the conservative support,'' Stewart said.
Vanita Gupta, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, called the attorney general's announcement part of a "sea change'' in public safety policy.
"It was time for leadership in Washington, D.C., to address this crisis,'' Gupta said. "These punitive measures have had a severe racial impact, and they have not been necessary to protect public safety.''
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said that although he agreed with "many'' of Holder's proposals, he expressed concern that the administration would attempt to bypass Congress to implement them.
"Unfortunately, the Obama administration has a pattern of overstepping its constitutional bounds by selectively enforcing our laws and attempting to change them through executive fiat,'' Goodlatte said.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports treatment for drug offenders over incarceration, said Holder's proposals were overdue.
"There is no good reason why the Obama administration couldn't have done something like this during his first term,'' Nadelmann said, adding that possibly "tens of thousands of Americans have suffered unjustly as a result of their delay.''
Nevertheless, Nadelmann said, the administration deserves "credit for stepping out now and for doing so in a fairly decisive way.''