Full Speed Ahead, DOJ Tacking Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws

Full Speed Ahead, DOJ Tacking Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws

Presently, 20 states plus the District of Columbia have passed medical marijuana laws. And a couple of years ago, both Washington and Oregon passed laws legalizing marijuana use for recreational purposes.

Due to the widespread attention of the issue, media outlets everywhere are discussing the matter — not just the legality of pot, but also the drastic prison sentences offenders are often handed down for possession of the substance.

In the 1980s and 1990s, mandatory minimum sentencing laws were passed that gave offenders automatic prison sentences for pot possession and other drug crimes, regardless of individual circumstances. In some cases, the first set of inmates handed these harsh sentences are still serving life in prison — 20 years later.

The public, previously unaware of these draconian sentence structures, is now sitting up and taking notice. It seems the federal government is too.

Proposal to eradicate mandatory minimum sentencing laws

At a United States Sentencing Commission conference conducted this past January, there were suggestions made about changing these mandatory sentencing guidelines for nonviolent offenders. Among the different pitches, the commission proposed an initiative to reduce federal drug crime sentences for drug dealers by one year.

The DOJ's plan

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder who spoke at the conference supported the commission's proposals. However, he indicated that the Department of Justice has plans to go a step further. With support from several members of Congress, Holder plans to take proactive measures to completely abolish the mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug crimes, rather than just reduce them.

If implemented, the federal prison population is estimated to decrease by over 6,500 inmates within the next five years.

"This over-reliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable. It comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate," he indicated.

The future of stiff drug sentences

It remains to be seen just what will become of these set sentencing guidelines. They are presently codified in the U.S. code and, without Congress's intervention, they will remain.

It's obvious though that the DOJ disapproves of these sentences and will do what it can to skirt around them. For instance, Holder has already instructed federal prosecutors to use discretion and consider charging certain individuals for crimes that would fall outside the mandatory sentences laws.

The department has also publicly encouraged low-level crack cocaine offenders serving long prison sentences to apply for clemency.

According to Holder, tackling these sentences would "help to rein in federal prison spending while focusing limited resources on the most serious threats to public safety."