Monday, August 12, 2013

US Attorney General Announces Change in Drug Crime Policy

As reported by the Washington Post and numerous other news outlets, Attorney General Eric Holder is set to announce new policies for the prosecution of drug crimes by the Department of Justice.  These new measures are aimed at combating the problem of overcrowding in federal prisons.  In addition, the new policies hope to avoid sending individuals charged with non-violent drug crimes to jail for lengthy periods of time.

Since 1980, the population of the United States has grown by approximately 33%.  However, the federal prison population has grown 800% in that same time.  Jails are operating at 40% over capacity.  The federal government spent $80 billion incarcerating inmates in 2010.

Those statistics are largely due to the fact that there are a number of federal drug laws that require lengthy mandatory minimum jail sentences for some non-violent offenders.  For example, if an individual is charged with possession of more than 5 grams of crack cocaine under federal law, they are subjected to five years of mandatory jail time, meaning the sentencing judge absolutey cannot suspend that time.  It doesn't matter if the individual accused clearly possessed the drugs for personal use or if they have absolutely no criminal history.  If convicted they go to federal prison for five years, no questions asked.

The Attorney General plans to instruct his 94 U.S. Attorneys across the country to implement changes to the way charges are brought.  At the outset, the decision making process related to whether to even bring federal charges will be addressed.  In cases where there is not an overwhelming impetus to bring federal charges, the Department of Justice may elect to simply allow state authorities to act, as where in the past they may have filed federal charges.  Further, federal authorities will begin to modify the specific factual allegations in the charging documents filed with the court.  For example, instead of alleging that an individual was in possession of a particular quantity of drugs, the charging documents will simply state that the individual was in possession of the drug, without mention of the quantity.  These more vague allegations will help remove some of the mandatory jail sentences from the equation and give the sentencing judge more authority to sentence as he or she deems appropriate.

As a drug crimes lawyer in DC I believe that this is a fantastic decision by the Attorney General (and most likely the President who gave the green light on this one).  The recognition that some of the federal drug laws are overly harsh and punitive is something that should have happened a long time ago.  To continue to send non-violent offenders to prison for terms of 5 or more years in some cases simply for possessing a personal quantity of drugs is mind blowing.  Taking into account the overcrowding problem in U.S. prisons and it seems like a no brainer policy modification.  

This marks an important benchmark in the war on drugs.  Common sense and logic were at the forefront of this decision, something that cannot often be said when high ranking government official are making decisions.  I hope to see more decisions like this made by the federal government moving forward.  

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