In an effort to ease prison overcrowding, the Obama Administration will implement a major shift in policy, one that sidesteps federal mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level drug offenses.

In a speech Monday at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting, Attorney General Eric Holder stressed the importance of avoiding mandatory minimums for drug-related offenders.

“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason … Although incarceration has a role to play in our justice system, widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable.”

In addition to the “human and moral costs” of locking up such a significant portion of the population, Holder stressed the “economic burden” associated with incarceration, which came to $80 billion in 2010 alone.

The plan from the Justice Department to reduce incarceration involves allowing state courts to handle more cases, which would subject fewer offenders to federal charges, which would in turn, subject fewer offenders to mandatory minimums. This is a means of sidestepping the issue because, while Holder supports empowering judges to use their discretion regarding mandatory minimums, it would require a change in the law for them to do so.

The Justice Department policy also calls for an increase in alternatives to prison, such as drug-treatment programs, as well as an expansion of the “compassionate release” program, which allows elderly, non-violent offenders to be released from prison early.

While these policy changes don’t nullify the mandatory minimum sentencing law, they can have a major impact on the prison system by effectively sidestepping such sentencing. After all, in 2012, 75 percent of federal mandatory minimum sentences were for drug offenses and nearly half of all people serving time in federal prison were sentenced for drug-related crimes. 

According to Holder, “The bottom line is that, while the aggressive enforcement of federal criminal statutes remains necessary, we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.”

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