New approach in drug cases

Attorney General Eric Holder contends that too many people are serving too-long sentences for drug crimes.

Violations of federal drug laws carry draconian sentences that often leave insufficient flexibility to the trial judge to fashion a punishment that fits the crime.

On Monday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said he's trying to address that problem. He announced that the Justice Department has instructed federal prosecutors to start filing charges in drug cases in a way that ensures some offenders are treated less harshly.

The operative word in Holder's announcement is "some" drug offenders. Based on the facts of individual cases, serious drug law violators will continue to be subject to harsh mandatory prison sentences.

Offenders targeted by Holder's Justice Department for less serious punishment are those who are nonviolent, unarmed, not possessing a significant criminal history and not leaders of or having serious ties to major crime organizations.

Holder's proposal makes sense for a couple of important reasons. Not all drug offenders need to be incarcerated for as long as mandatory sentence laws now permit, and it's expensive to lock up large numbers of people for decades at a time.

There is no question that tough state and federal crime laws, including those involving drugs, have dramatically reduced crime rates. The fact that crime rates are at a 40-year low demonstrates the value of taking career criminals out of circulation.

At the same time, critics of mandatory federal sentencing laws have a point when they note that not all drug offenders are the same and there is no good reason to treat lesser offenders as if they were more serious criminal operatives.

Take a drug offender charged with possessing 5 kilograms (roughly 11 pounds) of cocaine. Under current law, the mandatory minimum penalty is 10 years in prison. Under Holder's plan, the charge would be filed without listing the amount, thereby eliminating the mandatory minimum option but allowing the sentencing judge to take the amount into consideration in sentencing.

Depending on the case, the sentencing judge could impose a sentence of less than 10 years or one of more, the key factor being that the court can impose a sentence that fits the circumstances of the crime and the background of the defendant.

We've long been skeptical of mandatory minimums because in too many cases it takes flexibility away from experienced judges to impose sentences that fit the crime as well as the defendant.

This marks the second time that Holder's Justice Department has moved to lessen penalties for drug violations. Earlier, bipartisan majorities in the Senate and the House worked with Holder to pass legislation that reduced sentencing disparities among defendants convicted of selling powdered and crack cocaine. That represented a reduction in potential penalties involving crack cocaine that introduced more equity into the system.

For the time being, Holder will implement his new policy by requiring prosecutors to exercise their discretion under the law by not listing specific amounts of illegal drugs in their charging documents. Since that policy is contrary to the spirit of existing law, it's important that Holder follow up his policy pronouncement by asking Congress to write that option into new law.

There are two irrefutable lessons to draw about the ongoing war on drugs.

First, the fight is being lost, largely because there is so much demand for illegal substances like marijuana, cocaine and heroin. Second, even though the war is being lost, thousands of violators are going to state and federal prison.

The federal government is holding nearly 210,000 inmates, roughly half of whom are drug violators.

Major offenders are exactly where they ought to be, but Holder properly points out that it's a mistake to treat all of them with the same broad brush.

If lesser prison sentences or alternative sentences, including drug treatment, can help address the problem and/or reduce the cost to taxpayers, they should be pursued.

At the same time, everyone should remember that there is no silver bullet to the drug scourge. People's appetites for illegal drugs ensure that many people will step up to supply that demand, and, in the process, set themselves up for a long stint in prison.

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