U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday that federal prosecutors should no longer give mandatory, minimum sentences to low-risk, nonviolent drug offenders, a move that will have limited impact in Connecticut, but could nudge open the door to more reforms in state policy, experts said.
Speaking in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates, Holder said prosecutors should no longer pursue severe, long-term prison sentences for low-level criminals, and instead send them to treatment programs and community service.
“It’s clear,” Holder said, “that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason. It’s clear, at a basic level, that 20th-century criminal justice solutions are not adequate to overcome our 21st-century challenges. And it is well past time to implement common sense changes that will foster safer communities from coast to coast.”
The move is intended to relieve prison overcrowding that has spiraled upward in Connecticut and across the nation since the “War on Drugs” was launched in 1980.
It is also meant to reduce costs at a time of budget tightening. After sequestration cuts and reprogramming, the federal Board of Prisons budget was cut from $6.551 billion in fiscal year 2012 to $6.499 billion in fiscal year 2013. The average annual cost to house a federal inmate is $29,027.
The move also seeks to address longstanding civil rights issues. Minimum mandatory sentencing has created racial disparities in the justice system. About 85 percent of Connecticut’s prison population is black and Hispanic, said Scot X. Esdaile, state president of the Connecticut NAACP.
“We’ve been fighting this for years, so this is music to our ears,” Esdaile said. “The reason we feel prisons are so full up is because judges have their hands tied. They are unable to make any decisions because of the way mandatory sentencing is set up.”
“This so-called ‘war on drugs’ has really destroyed our community,” he said.
Holder’s revised guidelines also allow early release for nonviolent, elderly inmates who have served significant portions of their sentences.
The immediate impact on Connecticut is limited since the federal case load is relatively small with only 350 criminal cases in 2011. By comparison, the state justice system had 105,882 cases in the 2011-2012 fiscal year.
Connecticut currently has only one federal prison in Danbury, which is now being converted from a female to a male prison, a move that had generated some controversy.
Michael Lawlor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s criminal justice adviser, pointed out that the new policy is part of a national momentum and has support from both sides of the political aisle.
“There really is a groundswell nationally around these ideas and it really is bipartisan,” Lawlor said. “We’ve adopted a bunch of reforms in Connecticut.”
“What we want is for people to focus on the dangerous, high-risk offenders,” he said.
David McGuire, staff attorney for the Connecticut ACLU, said the policy is a very promising first step in sentencing reform, one that he hopes will extend to Connecticut’s state system.
“Holder’s announcement has had a lot of publicity. We’re hoping this enthusiasm from federal government will trickle down to state legislature and prompt reforms that will do away with mandatory minimums in the state of Connecticut,” he said.