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A.G. on right track in calling for discretion in drug sentences

Aug 14, 2013 - By The Fort Worth Star-Telegram

The federal prison system in the United States is an $80 billion industry that houses more than 219,000 prisoners, with about half of them serving time on drug-related charges.

A few thousand of those prisoners are incarcerated in North Texas, with two prisons in Fort Worth and one in Seagoville. The Federal Correctional Institution in Fort Worth, a low-security facility for male inmates, in June had 1,830 inmates (more than 1,100 imprisoned for drug offenses) and the Federal Medical Center Carswell is a women's prison with 1,598 inmates, 814 on drug charges.

If Attorney General Eric Holder has his way, there will be a reduction in the federal prison population as the Department of Justice unveils new policies and proposed legislation that will do away with mandatory sentencing for low-level, non-violent drug offenses that are not gang related or part of a larger drug organization.

Holder, in a speech to the American Bar Association on Monday, also called for reducing prison time for the elderly convicted of non-violent crimes.

Responding to a rise in gang and drug crimes in the 1980s, Congress passed a series of laws calling for tougher sentencing, with mandatory minimums, leaving federal judges little discretion in punishing convicted felons. For example, a person caught with 5 grams of crack cocaine was automatically sentenced to five years in prison without parole, the same sentence for a person convicted of possessing 500 grams of powder cocaine. In 2012 Congress reduced the ratio for punishment between the crack and powder cocaine from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. While that was still out of whack, it was a start.

Holder told the ABA that the Justice Department wanted to address reducing the disparities in the criminal justice system and the number of people confined, as well as tackling violent crime issues, making communities safer and increasing support for victims.

The attorney general noted the department had studied several state systems and was impressed by some policy changes. The Pew Charitable Trusts, in examining sentencing and corrections reforms in a dozen states over the least three years, estimated that changes would save $4 billion over several years.

Holder is on target. Now Congress should pass the bipartisan Senate bill that would give federal judges more discretion in certain drug cases.

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