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US asks for end of mandatory drug crime sentencing

The United States' top law enforcement official called for major changes to the US criminal justice system that would scale back the use of harsh prison sentences for some drug-related crimes.

WASHINGTON // The United States' top law enforcement official called for major changes to the US criminal justice system that would scale back the use of harsh prison sentences for some drug-related crimes.

The changes in sentencing guidelines would divert people convicted of low-level offences to drug treatment and community service programmes, and expand a programme to allow for the release of some elderly, non-violent offenders.

In remarks to the American Bar Association yesterday, Eric Holder, the attorney general, said he was mandating a change to Justice Department policy so that low-level, non-violent drug offenders with no ties to large-scale organisations, gangs or cartels would not be charged with offences that impose mandatory minimum sentences.

Mandatory minimum prison sentences - a product of the government's war on drugs in the 1980s - limit the discretion of judges to impose shorter prison sentences.

Under the altered policy, the attorney general said defendants would instead be charged with offences for which accompanying sentences "are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins".

Federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 per cent above capacity and hold more than 219,000 inmates - with almost half of them serving time for drug-related crimes and many of them with substance use disorders. In addition, 9 million to 10 million prisoners go through local jails each year. Mr Holder praised state and local law enforcement officials for already instituting some of the types of changes he said must be made at the federal level.

Aggressive enforcement of federal criminal laws is necessary, but "we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation", Mr Holder said.

"Today, 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.

"We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate - not merely to convict, warehouse and forget."

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