During a speech at the American Bar Association in San Francisco, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the U.S. Department of Justice will change the way it charges people involved in low-level drug offenses so they are not subject to “draconian mandatory minimum sentences.”
Holder says judges are currently forced to hand down a minimum sentence if people are convicted of certain crimes, such as drug possession, so charging someone with an offense that does not have a minimum requirement gives judges more flexibility to determine sentences that are more appropriate to individual cases.
Indiana legislators this year passed a bill that takes a similar approach. It reduces sentences for low-level drug crimes and diverts low-level offenders from prisons into local community corrections and rehabilitation programs.
State Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington says the fact that the two plans are so similar is no coincidence. He says state legislators typically do not look to trends in the federal government when drafting legislation, but the federal government often looks to states.
“Probably what’s happened is that the justice department on the federal level has looked down on what’s happening in these states and noticed that there’s some momentum building, that politically this is happening in what you would think of as red, law and order states,” he says.
In fact, Holder mentioned in his speech that 17 states have moved funding away from prison construction to rehabilitation.
Money has been one of the key drivers of criminal code overhauls. Pierce says other states that have implemented such policies have saved tens of millions of dollars by not building new prisons and adding new prison staff—although some states have not seen the savings as quickly as predicted.
Pierce says he hopes Congress will realize how much it will save and reallocate some of that money to local rehabilitation programs, which could be taking on a larger burden because of transfers from prisons.
“One of the things that would really be great is if the federal government said, ‘We’re spending billions of dollars in this old war on drugs approach, and we’ve decided we don’t need to spend as much incarcerating people for 20 or 30 years, maybe we could take that money and somehow block grant it down to the state level to provide the treatment and use the things that are called evidence based best practice,’” he says.