Attorney General Eric Holder called for changes Monday to the nation's criminal justice system that would scale back the use of harsh prison sentences for certain federal drug-related crimes, divert people convicted of low-level offenses to treatment and community service programs and allow for more releases of elderly, non-violent offenders.
Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Bar Association in San Francisco, Holder said he favored sending people convicted of low-level offenses to drug treatment and community service programs instead of seeing them get harsh prison sentences.
"With an outsized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter, and rehabilitate – not merely to warehouse and forget," Holder said. "Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities."
In one important change, low-level, non-violent drug offenders with no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels won't be charged with offenses that impose mandatory minimum prison sentences. Such sentences, a product of the government's war on drugs in the 1980s, limit the discretion of judges to impose shorter prison sentences.
Holder says mandatory minimum sentences "breed disrespect for the system. When applied indiscriminately, they do not serve public safety. They have had a disabling effect on communities. And they are ultimately counterproductive."
Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have introduced legislation aimed at giving federal judges more discretion in applying mandatory minimums to certain drug offenders.
Neill Franklin, a former head trainer for drug enforcement at the Maryland State Police who later worked for the Baltimore Police Department, told Al Jazeera that many prisoners, including those jailed for low-level drug offenses, return to society in "worse shape than when they went into prison."
"When they come out saddled with that criminal record, the only corporation that will hire them is the illegal drug trade. So the cycle continues," said Franklin, who is now the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a non-profit group that wants to eliminate prohibition of all drugs for adults and establish regulatory standards for distribution and use.
Meanwhile, in Holder's prepared remarks, he said that the current system leads to a cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration that "traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities."
"We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation," Holder said. "Many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem, rather than alleviate it."
Franklin believes that what Holder called for is a "step in the right direction," but "falls short of the needed criminal justice reform."
"At the federal level, when we're talking about federal prisons, that's the very small number of people that we have in the system. The vast majority of people within the system are at the state level. So even reform on the federal level, would be very minimal at the end of the day," he said.
Federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity and hold more than 219,000 inmates -- with almost half serving time for drug-related crimes. Many of them have substance use disorders.
Holder says new approaches — which he is calling the "Smart On Crime" initiative — are the result of a Justice Department review he launched earlier this year.
The attorney general says some issues are best handled at the state or local level and says he has directed federal prosecutors across the country to develop locally tailored guidelines for determining when federal charges should be filed and when they should not.
"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," Holder says.
The attorney general says 17 states have directed money away from prison construction and toward programs and services such as treatment and supervision that are designed to reduce the problem of repeat offenders.
In Kentucky, legislation has reserved prison beds for the most serious offenders and refocused resources on community supervision. The state, Holder says, is projected to reduce its prison population by more than 3,000 over the next 10 years, saving more than $400 million.
He also cites investments in drug treatment in Texas for non-violent offenders and changes to parole policies, which he says brought about a reduction in the prison population of more than 5,000 inmates last year. He says similar efforts helped Arkansas reduce its prison population by more than 1,400. He also points to Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Hawaii as states that have improved public safety while preserving limited resources.
Holder says the department is also expanding a policy for considering compassionate release for inmates facing extraordinary or compelling circumstances, and who pose no threat to the public. He says the expansion would include elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes and who have served significant portions of their sentences.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press