The Nation Moves to Curb Mandatory Drug Sentences

On Monday, August 12, 2013, Reuters reported on how the Obama administration had unveiled steps to address the longstanding unjust treatment of nonviolent drug offenders, aiming specifically to bypass tough mandatory prison terms, thereby saving America billions of dollars while reducing the nation's huge prison population.

Attorney General Eric Holder, the nation's top law enforcement official said in a speech in San Francisco, "Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason."

While unveiling the proposals, Holder said that the Justice Department would direct federal prosecutors to charge certain defendants in low-level drug cases in such a way that they would not be subject to the mandatory sentences that are currently on the books.

In order for prosecutors to accomplish this, they would omit from official charging documents the amount of drugs that were involved in a case. This process would ensure that nonviolent offenders without a significant criminal history would not receive long sentences.

Holder also proposed that federal judges would be given the freedom to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses; however, these are going to require congressional approval.

Holder described the current mandatory minimums required under the justice system in which offenders were condemned to long prison terms for nonviolent drug possession crimes as unjust. "This is why I have today mandated a modification of the Justice Department's charging policies so that certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences," said Holder.

Holder cited moral, financial and social reasons for re-examining the current drug policies that send so many Americans to prison. At a conference for the American Bar Association, Holder said that as the so-called war on drugs enters its fifth decade, we need to ask whether it and the approaches that compromise it have been truly effective.

Reuters reported that the United States leads the world in the percentage of its population that is behind bars, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies in London. One of the reasons for that are the mandatory minimum sentencing laws enacted in the 1980s and 1990s when drug violence was on the rise. Since these laws were passed, crime has dropped and now the government is concerned about the costs associated with housing and maintaining the nation's huge prison population.

Holder said that he has instructed federal prosecutors nationwide to develop locally tailored guidelines to determine whether or not drug cases should be subject to federal charges. "Such legislation will ultimately save our country billions of dollars, and the president and I look forward to working with members of both parties to refine and advance these proposals," Holder said.

Holder said that by reserving the most severe penalties for the high-level or violent drug traffickers, we can better promote public safety, deterrence and rehabilitation, while making smarter and more productive expenditures.

In Florida where drug offenders face some of the harshest drug laws in the nation, Holder's changes to mandatory minimum sentencing for eligible nonviolent drug offenders will make long-awaited, sweeping changes to the state's outdated drug laws.

At Taylor & Waldrop, we are excited about this news and will stay abreast of all forthcoming changes in Florida's drug sentencing laws and procedures. Contact us for legal guidance today!

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