No more mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders

In a surprise move earlier this month, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced that the federal government would no longer seek mandatory minimum penalties for low-level drug crimes. The move promises to drastically reduce the prison sentences handed out to first-time, nonviolent offenders.

Mandatory minimum sentences are laws passed by Congress that force judges to apply a certain amount of prison time in cases that involve a certain amount of drugs. The laws have long been controversial for taking power away from judges and for applying unnecessarily long prison sentences. With this recent announcement, the Obama Administration is clearly making a move to correct what it is now calling an “injustice.”

Of course, the Attorney General does not have the power to repeal mandatory minimum sentencing laws; that would require an act of Congress. Instead, Holder has instructed prosecutors to charge offenders with offenses that do not carry minimum sentences.

The move promises to not only ease the harsh sentences for drug offenders, but also to solve a huge problem for the federal government. Federal prisons are critically overcrowded, due in large part to long sentences for drug offenders. Bypassing mandatory sentencing laws will likely ease the pressure on prison populations.

Holder’s decision has already been greeted enthusiastically by many here in Utah. Several years ago, one Utah man received a 55-year sentence for a drug crime, a prison term dictated by mandatory sentencing laws. The presiding judge, who had no power to overrule the mandatory sentence, called it “cruel, unusual and irrational.” In light of Holder’s new position, the man is applying for clemency from President Obama.

Though the new position on mandatory sentencing laws is an improvement in many ways, those charged with drug crimes should still work to defend themselves against such accusations. Although prison sentences may have been lowered in many cases, a conviction for drug crimes can still carry enormous consequences for one’s personal and professional life. In such cases, it is often best to speak to an attorney for assistance.

Source: ABC-4 Utah, “Federal mandatory minimum sentences no longer a priority” Marcos Ortiz, Aug. 12, 2013

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