Attorney General Eric Holder testifies Thursday on Capitol Hill.
(Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, AP)
WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) -- Attorney General Eric Holder will call Monday for major changes in
the federal criminal justice system, including doing away with some
mandatory minimum sentencing policies that have condemned scores of
non-violent offenders to long prison terms and driven up the costs of
In a speech before the American Bar Association,
Holder will also push for early release of seniors and ill inmates who
no longer pose a danger to society, yet require expensive special care.
bottom line is that, while the aggressive enforcement of federal
criminal statutes remains necessary, we cannot simply prosecute or
incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation,'' Holder will say,
according to excerpts of his prepared remarks. "We must never stop being
tough on crime. But we must also be smarter on crime.''
attorney general's position echoes a rapidly evolving shift in law
enforcement and penal policy that has been sweeping the states in recent
years. Increasingly, officials are acknowledging that they can no
longer bear the cost of warehousing thousands of non-violent offenders -
mostly for drug crimes - who have been targets of especially harsh
punishment starting more than two decades ago when crime was surging.
as states, including Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky and Texas, have reduced
their prison populations by referring more offenders to treatment or
probation, the federal system has continued to grow and now is at least
40% over capacity with nearly 220,000 inmates, according to the Justice
Department. About 25% of the Justice budget goes to fund prison-related
"Almost half of them are serving time for drug-related
crimes, and many have substance use disorders,'' according to the draft
of Holder's remarks. He also notes that about 40% of federal prisoners
are re-arrested or have their supervision revoked within three years
after release, "often for technical or minor violations of the terms of
"Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality,
and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many
communities,'' Holder is expected to say. "However, many aspects of our
criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem, rather
than alleviate it.''
Support for such changes has been building for months among civil rights advocates and lawmakers of diverse political stripes.
March, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., joined
with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., on a proposal to allow judges greater
sentencing flexibility in some cases that would otherwise be subject to
mandatory minimum prison terms.
"Our reliance on mandatory
minimums has been a great mistake,'' Leahy said then. "I am not
convinced it has reduced crime, but I am convinced it has imprisoned
people, particularly non-violent offenders, for far longer than is just
or beneficial. It is time for us to let judges go back to acting as
judges and making decisions based on the individual facts before them.''
said the mandatory sentences "reflect a Washington-knows-best,
one-size-fits-all approach," which violates the principle "that people
should be treated as individuals.''
Some of the same views are
being advanced by the conservative group, "Right on Crime,'' whose
members include former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former Florida
governor Jeb Bush.
"Conservatives are known for being tough on
crime, but we must also be tough on criminal justice spending,''
according to the group's mission statement. "A clear example is our
reliance on prisons, which serve a critical role by incapacitating
dangerous offenders and career criminals but are not the solution for
every type of offender.''
In some cases, the group said, high
rates of imprisonment "have the unintended consequence of hardening
non-violent, low-risk offenders - making them a greater risk to the
public than when they entered.''
Earlier this year, the Justice
Department's own inspector general issued a scathing report about its
management of thousands of aging and sick offenders, many of whom died
while awaiting decisions on applications for early release because of
their serious infirmities.
"Housing a continually growing and
aging population of federal inmates and detainees is consuming an
ever-larger portion of the department's budget," the inspector general's
April report said, adding that the burden is "making safe and secure
incarceration increasingly difficult to provide and threatening to force
significant budgetary and programmatic cuts to other (Justice)
components in the near future."
"We are on an unsustainable path here," Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz said.
Holder's proposals largely track the inspector general's findings.
need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and
rehabilitate - not merely to convict, warehouse and forget,'' the
attorney general's draft remarks state.
"Clearly, these strategies
can work. They've attracted overwhelming, bipartisan support in red
states' as well as blue states. And it's past time for others to take