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So You Want to Abolish Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Small-Time Drug Dealers

It's a tall order, and probably high time. Attorney General Eric Holder sure thinks so, and plans to overhaul Justice Department policy to spare petty, non-violent drug offenders of lengthy mandatory minimum sentences. But a plan is just that: a plan...
Brian Anderson
Κείμενο Brian Anderson
This guy says he does, too. Photo via US Embassy, New Zealand.

It's a tall order, and probably high time. Roughly half of the 219,000 inmates currently in federal lock up are there on drug charges. To go on cramping a national prison system that's already over capacity by 40 percent is something Attorney General Eric Holder says is no longer sustainable. Holder announced on Monday his plans for a sweeping overhaul of Justice Department policy that will spare petty and otherwise peaceable drug offenders of lengthy mandatory-minimum sentences.

The proposals have been in the works for months, the Washington Post reports, and in no way do they lessen the role of brute-force incarceration within the justice system. The idea isn't to reverse the fate of those criminals and drug kingpins who might really and truly deserve to molder behind bars for life. Rather, the plan will instruct federal prosecutors to stop hitting mere garden variety drug dealers with "excessive" prison terms and start handing out sentences more appropriately suited "to their individual conduct," according to excerpts from Holder's prepared remarks this afternoon at the American Bar Association in San Francisco.

Time will tell if that actually plays out or not. Holder has a history of backsliding, to put it mildly, especially when it comes to dumb shit like weed. Remember when he said the Feds would stop busting up medical pot shops, but then the DEA kept smashing up cannabis dispensaries anyway?

What we know right now is that more of those folks who bear no links to big-fish narco organizations, cartels, and gangs, but who nevertheless sit in federal limbo, will see their low-level cases redirected to individual states, whose courts can then, say, enroll certain of these offenders in drug treatment and community service programs. Holder's plan also allows for the release of certain elderly, non-violent inmates sooner rather than later.

But the real kicker is how this reform package shifts the way the law looks at the amount of a given controlled substance in a given indictment. Federal prosecutors will now be able to exclude specific quantities of drugs that are attached to specific cases. Drug-based federal indictment processes, of course, are more often than not inextricably bound to the amount of drugs involved. Think of it this way: If you're caught carrying five kilograms of cocaine and a federal judge rules that you were intending to sell the stuff, there's a 99 percent chance you will face an automatic mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years. So help you God.

Read the rest over at Motherboard.