Justice Dept. moves to cut down on minimum sentencing

Important move will attenuate War on Drugs while wresting undue power from prosecutors' hands

Topics: federal prosecutors, War on Drugs, Eric Holder, doj, Department of Justice, marijuana, Attorney General, minimum sentencing, ,

Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday that the Department of Justice (DOJ) aimed to overhaul federal minimum sentencing laws, particularly to help those facing low-level drug charges from facing prosecution and lengthy minimum jail-time.

During an American Bar Association speech Monday, Holder plans to say: “Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities… However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem, rather than alleviate it.”

The New York Times noted on Holder’s prepared remarks that he plans to detail the extent of the over-incarcertion rate and its roots in the War on Drugs. The A.G. will comment that while the American population has grown by about a third since 1980, its prison rate has increased nearly 800 percent. At the federal level, more than 219,000 inmates are currently behind bars — nearly half for drug-related crimes — and the prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above their official capacity.

Human rights advocates will celebrate the DOJ’s decision as a possible move to attenuate the U.S.’s vast over-incarceration problem. I’ve written for some months too — particularly in light of Aaron Swartz’s suicide facing a hefty minimum sentence at trial — about the undue leverage given to government prosecutors in a judicial system based around minimum sentencing. With the threat of hefty minimum sentences at trial, prosecutors are able to extract from defendants a disproportionate number of guilty pleas before trial (marking millions of Americans with criminal records.)

As Angela Davis, American University law professor wrote last year, “When one considers the fact that more than 95 percent of all criminal cases are resolved with guilty pleas, it is very clear that prosecutors control the criminal justice system through their charging and plea bargaining powers.” Holder’s comments may always spell an end to the federal crackdown of drug dispensaries where the sale of marijuana has been legalized — a federal vs. state battle that has seen dispensary owners, following their state law, facing federal charges carrying decade-long minimum sentences.

“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason,” Holder will note according to released prepared remarks. Facing a wealth of criticism over the DOJ’s treatment of leakers and scant regard, it seems, for the Fourth Estate or Fourth Amendment, the policy shift announced Monday could be a significant silver lining on Holder’s otherwise stormy legacy.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...