The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
August 16, 2013
Critics have long contended that draconian mandatory minimum sentence laws for low-level drug offenses have had a disproportionate impact on members of minority groups and have packed federal prisons with drug offenders. This week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that federal prosecutors would no longer invoke certain mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
In order to increase public safety, David Hickton, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, believes they need to focus on punishment and rehabilitation. He said they won't be soft on crime, but will be smarter.
Hickton believes he will have more discretion when making charging decisions. "We're talking about an approach that has two sides to it. We're going to be more selective and in indeed get even more aggressive with a certain class of criminals, but we're going to try and be more smart with a second group of criminals."
The cost of incarceration in the United States was $80 billion in 2010, according to the Justice Department. While the U.S. population has increased by about a third since 1980, the federal prison population has grown by about 800 percent. Justice Department officials said federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent over capacity.
Ohio State University law professor Douglas Berman said, it would be the first major sentencing reform since the crack epidemic of the 1980s.
"It's not just a story of new politicians in Washington having a new willingness to speak about these issues, because of lower crime rates and the budget crisis, but I think also the discovery that across the political spectrum across the country, states have been successful in modifying ... sentencing laws to go from what's often talked about as being tough to being smarter on crime," Berman adds.
Some prosecutors, even some inside the Justice Department, may have a hard time making that pivot, as they debate how lengthy prison terms may have helped lower the crime rate.
William G. Otis, a former federal prosecutor and an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law School, described Mr. Holder’s move as a victory for drug dealers that would incentivize greater sales of addictive contraband, and he suggested that the stop-and-frisk ruling could be overturned on appeal.
Otis also warned that society was becoming “complacent” and forgetting that the drug and sentencing policies enacted over the last three decades had contributed to the falling crime rates.
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