U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is joining with libertarian Republicans, including Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, in opposing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
This political alliance may make it politically feasible to significantly liberalize sentencing laws, according to The New York Times. Libertarian-minded Republicans oppose long prison sentences because they see them as ineffective and expensive, the article notes. Rand is backing a sentencing overhaul bill in the Senate, and the House is considering similar legislation.
In August, Holder announced a Justice Department plan to change how some non-violent drug offenders are prosecuted. Low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who are not tied to large-scale drug organizations or gangs will not face mandatory minimum sentences.
Under the plan, severe penalties will be used only for serious, high-level or violent drug traffickers. Holder will give federal prosecutors instructions about writing their criminal complaints when they charge low-level drug offenders, in order to avoid triggering mandatory minimum sentences. Certain laws mandate minimum sentences regardless of the facts of the case.
In December, President Obama commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates who had been convicted of crack-cocaine offenses. Six of the inmates were sentenced to life in prison. The inmates likely would have received much shorter terms under current drug laws and sentencing rules.
While powder and crack cocaine are two forms of the same drug, until recently, a drug dealer who sold crack cocaine was subject to the same sentence as a dealer who sold 100 times as much powder cocaine.
The Fair Sentencing Act, enacted in 2010, reduced the disparity from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1, for people who committed their crimes after the law took effect. As a result, many defendants who are caught with small amounts of crack are no longer subject to mandatory prison sentences of five to 10 years. Those convicted of crack-cocaine crimes tend to be black, while those convicted of powder-cocaine offenses tend to be white.