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US to cut back minimum sentences for some drug offences

The Obama administration is to unveil a major reform of the criminal justice system, dropping mandatory minimum sentences in certain drug cases.

Such terms will not be imposed for non-violent drug offenders with no gang or cartel ties, Attorney General Eric Holder is expected to say.

The US has one of the world’s biggest prison populations, despite a 40-year-low in the country’s crime rates.

Critics say that heavy drug sentences have hit minorities hardest.

“We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate – not merely to convict, warehouse and forget,” Mr Holder will say in Monday’s speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco, according to excerpts released to US media.

‘Vicious cycle’

Under the reforms, Mr Holder is directing US prosecutors who draft indictments for certain drug offences to omit any mention of the quantity of illegal substance involved, so as to avoid triggering a mandatory minimum sentence.

Only non-violent offenders with no previous charges or ties to gangs or cartels will be affected.

Continue reading the main story

US prisons in numbers

  • Black and Hispanic people are over-represented in the prison system, 37% and 34% respectively
  • US prisons are operating at nearly 40% above capacity
  • Some 219,000 federal inmates are behind bars
  • The cost of incarceration in the US was $80bn (£50bn) in 2010

Source: Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons

He is expected to advocate sending people convicted of low-level offences to drug treatment and community service programmes instead of prison.

Such terms, created as part of the US “war on drugs” in the 1980s, prevent judges from applying discretion when sentencing certain drug offences.

According to excerpts of his prepared remarks released to media, the attorney general is expected to say: “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.”

Mr Holder will also back efforts by lawmakers to allow judges to use more flexibility with mandatory minimum sentences.

Some states, including Texas, have already introduced programmes designed to limit incarceration of low-level offenders.

Mr Holder is also expected to announce an expanded compassionate release for inmates facing extraordinary circumstances and who pose no threat to the public.

The policy is expected to include elderly prisoners who did not commit violent crimes and who have already served a significant portion of their sentences.

Some 47% of US prison inmates have been incarcerated for drug offences, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.


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