Reformers hopeful after Holder’s pivot on sentencing

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Robby Soave Reporter
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With Attorney General Eric Holder signaling a new approach to criminal sentencing for low-level drug offenders, opponents of mandatory minimums are optimistic that the Obama administration is officially on their side at last.

In a speech to the American Bar Association on Monday, Holder said he would direct the Justice Department to cease charging low-level drug offenders with mandatory minimums that obligate judges to impose harsh sentences on convicted defendants.

“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 can become both smarter and tougher on crime,” he said in a statement.

Holder also planned to initiate a program that would allow elderly inmates who committed nonviolent crimes to be released early — saving taxpayers money and easing the nation’s overburdened prisons.

Criminal sentencing reform has become a bipartisan issue, with both Republicans and Democrats endorsing a bill that would restore judicial discretion in determining sentences. The Justice Safety Valve Act was sponsored by Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul and Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy in the Senate.

Though an advocate of reform during his Senate years, President Obama fell mostly silent on mandatory minimums after taking the office of presidency. But proponents of the Justice Safety Valve Act are optimistic that Holder’s shift is a sign that Obama may soon endorse the bill.

“All the actors in the system are recognizing that we’ve gone overboard and that it isn’t good for public safety,” wrote Molly Gill, government affairs counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, in an email to The Daily Caller News Foundation. “His kind of support should provide Congress and the President with all that they need to get something done on this issue now.”

Many people serving lengthy sentences under mandatory minimums were nonviolent offenders. Some were convicted under federal laws of growing and selling marijuana in states where state law permits them to do so.

Supporters of drug decriminalization and criminal sentencing reform have long hoped that the Obama Administration would enact some of their preferred policy changes, but have so far been disappointed.

Holder now claims, however, that the president fully supports his new agenda.

“These are issues the president and I have been talking about for as long as I’ve known him — issues he’s felt strongly about ever since his days as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago,” said Holder. “The president and I agree that it’s time to take a pragmatic approach.”

Sen. Paul said the he was glad to have the administration on the side of sentencing reform.

“The administration’s involvement in this bipartisan issue is a welcome development,” he said in a statement. “Now the hard work begins to change the law to permanently address this injustice.”

Paul’s bill, the Justice Safety Valve Act, is still the best long-term solution to reducing the federal government’s costly involvement in mandatory sentencing, wrote Gill.

“I think everyone is recognizing that the reforms, like the Justice Safety Valve Act, have to be meaningful to get the Justice Department back on the right track,” she wrote. “From a federalism perspective, this is the Justice Department recognizing that it can’t make a federal case — and a ten-year prison term — out of every drug offense.”

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