US unveils prison reform
SAN FRANCISCO/WASHINGTON – Reuters
Jail cells sit empty at the Fremont Police Detention Facility on August 1, 2013 in Fremont, California. AFP PhotoThe Obama administration unveiled steps on Aug. 12 to fix what it considers the longstanding unjust treatment of many nonviolent drug offenders, aiming to bypass tough mandatory prison terms while reducing America’s huge prison population and saving billions of dollars.
“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” Attorney General Eric Holder, the top U.S. law enforcement official, said in a speech in San Francisco unveiling a series of sweeping proposals.
Holder said that the Justice Department would direct federal prosecutors to charge defendants in certain low-level drug cases in such a way that they would not be eligible for mandatory sentences now on the books.
Prosecutors would do this by omitting from official charging documents the amount of drugs involved in a case, lawyers with expertise in criminal law said. By doing so, prosecutors would ensure that nonviolent defendants without significant criminal history would not get long sentences.
Other proposals unveiled by Holder, such as giving federal judges the leeway to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses, require congressional approval, a tricky prospect at a time of partisan gridlock in Washington.
Holder labeled as an injustice the mandatory minimum sentences required under the criminal justice system in many drugs cases, condemning offenders to long prison terms even for nonviolent crimes and possession of small amounts of drugs.
“This is why I have today mandated a modification of the Justice Department’s charging policies so that 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,” Holder said. Holder cited a moral imperative - as well as financial and social reasons - to re-examine policies that send so many Americans to prison.
“As the so-called war on drugs enters its fifth decade, we need to ask whether it, and the approaches that comprise it, have been truly effective,” Holder said at a conference of the American Bar Association lawyers group.
The United States leads the world in the percentage of its population behind bars, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies in London. Among the reasons for that are the mandatory minimum sentences and related laws enacted in the 1980s and 1990s at a time of rising crime and drug violence.
Holder said that the United States accounts for just 5 percent of the world’s population, but incarcerates almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. He added that U.S. federal prisons are nearly 40 percent above capacity and that almost half of the inmates are serving time for drug-related crimes.
According to statistics kept by the International Centre for Prison Studies, 716 of every 100,000 Americans are in prison or in jail awaiting trial. That compares to 479 in Russia, 284 in Iran, 274 in Brazil, 209 in Mexico, 149 in England and Wales, 121 in China, 114 in Canada, 102 in France and 80 in Germany.