Attorney General Eric Holder is calling for massive criminal justice reform, which he says will save the country billions of dollars and fix a broken system.
Addressing the American Bar Association in San Francisco, Holder announced Monday that low-level, non-violent drug offenders will no longer be charged with crimes that trigger severe mandatory sentences.
"Certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences," said Holder.
"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," explained Holder.
According to the Justice Department, more than half of the 219,000 federal inmates behind bars are serving time for drug-related crimes. Officials say incarceration cost $80 billion in 2010.
"The amount of money that they spend – if that could be re-routed into education, into drug rehab programs, into prevention – then we wouldn't have this problem. The problem is we don't have the funds to do that, and they just invest it completely in the prison systems," explained Bill Harrison, a criminal defense attorney who supports Holder's new direction.
Legal experts say mandatory minimum sentences were established under the belief enhanced punishments would help officials "arrest" offenders out of the war on drugs.
"Most of the offenses that we now defend, in terms of my practice and most criminal defense practices, relate to drugs in some way shape or form. Property crimes, theft crimes, forgery crimes, credit card offenses, drug crimes themselves – these are all offenses that these individuals who have addictions are creating because they have to fuel their addictions. They have to pay for these addictions. That's the basis of the crime. If we get around or away from the addiction problem, we won't have this type of crime," said Harrison.
Mandatory minimum sentencing has its supporters. Officials say crime did hit a 40-year-old in 2010.
"The prison population did explode, but crime rates went down by 50%," said Bill Otis, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney.
For the first time since mandatory minimum sentences were introduced in the 1980's, the Justice Department is calling for investments in "alternatives to detention" – for example, drug treatment for non-violent, low-level offenders.
"The whole idea of treatment instead of incarceration is to try to determine which people are really their criminal activity is being driven by their underlying problem and try to get help for that problem. Otherwise, you put them in jail they do their time they come out and it all starts again," said Pam Lichty, the President of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawai'i.
Sequestration is to blame for a 20% Pretrial Services budget cut that resulted in the end to a program that once sent qualified defendants to the Sand Island Treatment Center for drug rehabilitation rather than directly to prison. According to the Chief U.S. Pretrial Services Officer, it costs $2,600 a year to supervise a defendant on community release under pretrial services compared to $26,000 a year to supervise an individual in prison for a year.
"Unfortunately, the reality is there are fewer substance abuse treatment beds in Hawai'i now than there were 10 years ago. They're actually diminishing. So there's a lot of lip service being paid to how important this all is, but follow the money, it doesn't add up. I'm hoping the Attorney General's remarks will really encourage people – our local legislators – to, as he said, for moral and economic reasons do the right thing," said Lichty.
"I think eliminating mandatory minimums would make a great deal of difference and it's by no means a radical move, many judges are in favor of it. They go through many years of training and then they're faced with a defendant and they're actually supposed to look at a chart to see what they're supposed to sentence that person to. It doesn't make any sense," said Lichty, who mentioned last year there was a small move in this same direction when Governor Neil Abercrombie signed a law to reduce the mandatory minimums for certain drug crimes.
Harrision says here in Hawai'i, mandatory minimum sentencing has led to a disproportionate amount of Native Hawaiians serving lengthy prison terms.
"Refocus on those individuals and try to get them the help they need without just warehousing them and throwing them away, because what they do – they just create individuals who cannot get jobs when they get out, who have no educational opportunities and who of course, will be career criminals at that point," explained Harrison, who says in the past his hands have been tied because sentences were not doled out based on an individual's life experience or criminal history.
Attorney General Holder has directed his 94 U.S. Attorneys nationwide, including U.S. Attorney Florence Nakakuni here in Hawai'i, to develop locally-tailored guidelines for determining when federal drug charges should and shouldn't be filed. Hawai'i News Now reached out to the U.S. Attorney's office today, but they declined to comment.