Holder endorses reducing drug sentences

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In his most recent step to change the way the criminal justice system deals with drug offenders, Attorney General Eric Holder endorsed a proposal Thursday to reduce the average sentence for certain drug dealers.

In testimony before the U.S. Sentencing Commission, Holder gave his proverbial stamp of approval on a proposed change to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, first revealed in January, to lower the average sentence for those convicted of certain drug trafficking crimes by 11 months, from 62 months to 51 months.

“This straightforward adjustment to sentencing ranges — while measured in scope — would nonetheless send a strong message about the fairness of our criminal justice system,” Holder said before the commission. “And it would help to rein in federal prison spending while focusing limited resources on the most serious threats to public safety.”

According to the Justice Department, the reduction in sentencing would also reduce the inmate population by some 6,550 inmates over five years.

The move comes as Holder is pushing to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes — a proposal currently backed by some big-name Republicans like Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee.

In addition to highlighting the human aspect of allowing the proposed change, Holder pushed the idea as a cost saver in his testimony before the commission Thursday.

“State and federal governments spent a combined $80 billion on incarceration during 2010 alone,” he said. “And as you know — of the more than 216,000 current federal inmates — nearly half are serving time for drug-related crimes. This focused reliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable — it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”

The Commission is expected to vote on the proposal in April. According to the Justice Department, until the vote, it will direct prosecutors not to object if defendants request the proposed guidelines — that have yet to be approved — be applied to them in sentencing.

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