Sentencing reform advocates hailed US Attorney General Eric Holder’s call for lighter sentences for low-level drug offenders on Monday, saying a similar change in approach is needed in Massachusetts to end mandatory sentences and ease overcrowded prisons.
In a major policy shift that he described as a “fundamentally new approach,” Holder announced that federal prosecutors will no longer seek mandatory sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders, saying a “vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans.”
Holder’s remarks, which were also sharply critical of the nation’s long-running war on drugs, drew swift reaction in Massachusetts, where the percentage of residents behind bars has tripled since the 1980s. Critics of mandatory minimum sentences said they hoped the new policy would reignite debate on similar changes at the state level.
“We’re not operating in a vacuum,” said Barbara Dougan, Massachusetts project director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “More and more states are rejecting mandatory minimums, realizing they are filling prisons with people who either don’t need to be there at all, like some drug addicts, or don’t deserve nearly so much time. This shows the increased momentum to do things better.”
The state prison population has grown 15 percent since 2004, forcing prisons to operate well beyond capacity, according to government figures. That population is projected to grow even faster in coming years.
While heartened by the federal shift, supporters of sentencing reform struck several cautionary notes. The changes will take time to implement, they said, and will only last while the Obama administration is in office.
Changing the mindset of prosecutors who have been trained to aggressively pursue charges against drug offenders will not be easy, some advocates said.
“He [Holder] has a tough row to hoe,” said Leslie Walker, who directs Prisoners’ Legal Services in Boston. “There’s an entire generation of prosecutors who are used to having pretty much unfettered discretion in these cases.”
Noting that the federal prison population has grown nearly eightfold since 1980, Holder backed the use of treatment programs as alternatives to prison sentences. At the federal level, almost half of inmates are serving time for drug-related crimes, he said.
“With an outsized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter, and rehabilitate, not merely to warehouse and forget,” he said in a speech to the American Bar Association. “Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities.”
In Massachusetts, prosecutors said that virtually no first-time drug offenders are sentenced to state prison and that those convicted of serious drug crimes are typically violent.
“The idea that there are nonviolent drug offenders languishing in prisons in Massachusetts is a bit of a myth,” said Michael O’Keefe, district attorney for the Cape & Islands and president of the state’s district attorneys association, which favors mandatory sentences.
A drug crime was the most serious conviction for just 16 percent of the prison population, according to the state Department of Correction, down from 22 percent in 2011.
Many less serious drug offenders are sentenced to county facilities.
Last summer, state lawmakers reduced mandatory sentences for some nonviolent drug crimes, the first major relaxing of drug laws since the 1980s.
“I think we are ahead of the curve on this issue,” said O’Keefe, noting that district attorneys led the push for the changes. “To suggest this is a nonviolent business is just wrongheaded.”
But at the federal level, many praised Holder’s call for greater prosecutorial discretion to avoid mandatory sentences, saying it was long overdue.
“It’s great [that] the top federal law enforcement officer is calling attention to the huge problem of over-incarceration in this country,” said Miriam Conrad, head of the Public Defender’s Office in Massachusetts. “The nation should take a second look at the wisdom of mandatory minimums.”
Mandatory minimum sentences are automatic prison terms for those convicted of certain crimes, limiting judges’ discretion.
Mark Wolf, a federal judge and former chief judge for Massachusetts, praised the policy shift and Holder’s broader call for reform.
“I commend him for joining his powerful and important voice to the opposition of mandatory minimums, especially for lower-level drug offenses,” Wolf said.
Federal prosecutors should focus their resources on “more menacing criminals” and leave lesser drug cases to the states, he said.
“It’s an opportunity to improve public safety and create a more just system.”
David White, who chaired the Massachusetts Bar Association’s drug policy task force, which in 2009 released a report titled “The Failure of the War on Drugs,” called the policy changes a “baby step” toward a system that emphasizes treatment over incarceration for low-level offenders.
“Money spent on education and prevention and treatment returns a far better value than incarceration,” he said. “For every drug-addicted person we don’t give treatment to, we are guaranteeing there will be more crimes committed.”
Holder, citing efforts in Kentucky and Texas to reduce prison populations, called on other states to implement changes.
The United States, which has 5 percent of the world’s population, incarcerates almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners, he said. Racial disparities in sentencing are often pronounced, he added.
“We also must confront the reality that, once they’re in that system, people of color often face harsher punishments than their peers,” he said. “This isn’t just unacceptable; it is shameful.”Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.