Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Obama Administration is expanding their mandatory sentencing reforms to cases where charges have already been filed, during a Congressional Black Caucus forum on mandatory minimum sentencing held on Thursday,
This announcement follows the Obama Administration’s early August effort to curb mandatory minimum sentencing. At an American Bar Association conference on Aug. 12, Holder announced some significant changes to sentencing guidelines, allowing judges the freedom to determine whether or not a defendant should serve the mandatory minimum sentence given their connection to larger-scale drug organization.
Those reforms originally applied to future cases. Now, according to a memo sent by the Attorney General’s office, if a defendant is either awaiting a sentence or a determination of guilt, the new guidelines are to be applied as long as the defendant is a non-violent, low-level offender with no connection to a drug cartel or gang.
“By reserving the most severe prison terms for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers or kingpins, we can better enhance public safety,” Holder said at the event. “We can increase our focus on proven strategies for deterrence and rehabilitation. And we can do so while making our expenditures smarter and more productive.”
Holder’s announcement was the second time mandatory minimums have come up over the past week week. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on mandatory minimum sentencing on Wednesday where discussion of reform was met with bipartisan support.
Though Department of Justice officials say there is no current estimate of just how many people will be impacted by this change in policy, Jesselyn McCurdy, a senior legislative council ACLU Washington Legislative Office, says this represents another step toward finding a sensible alternative to mandatory minimum sentences. “We have a long way to go before the end of the War on Drugs,” McCurdy told TIME. “But, we’re seeing a rethinking of policy, which is always the beginning of an end.”
McCurdy says what’s next for mandatory minimums and the War on Drugs depends on Congress.
“The ball is in Congress’ court,” McCurdy said. And Congress has already begun to show some movement on both fronts; in the Senate, Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who are both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, joined forces to draft and introduce the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 in March, which would allow judges more leeway when deciding whether or not to hand out a mandatory minimum sentence.
Senators Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill that expands the sentencing below the minimum for certain offenses, and applies the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduces the disparity between crack and powder cocaine, to offenders who were sentenced after the law was passed.
Yet, there are still policymakers and prosecutors who are holding strong to their belief that mandatory minimums are not only working, but also essential to the war on crime. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) the Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, argued mandatory minimum sentencing has helped to reduce crime. Scott Burns, the executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, which represents about 40,000 prosecutors nationwide, also testified at Wednesday’s hearing, where he expressed support for mandatory minimum sentencing.
Burns says the push to reform prisons by getting rid of mandatory minimum sentencing is a step in the wrong direction.
“Why would we start, with the success we’ve had, why would we start letting everyone out?” Burns told TIME. “Crime has gone down…. one tool that’s been effective in the dramatic reduction of homicides, rapes, robberies and assaults is mandatory minimum sentencing.”