Attorney General Taking Steps in the Right Direction

Posted by Jessica Travis in Criminal Law Blog











Attorney General Taking Steps in the Right Direction

By Jessica Travis on Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced that the Justice Department will be changing its minimum mandatory sentencing policies for “low-level, nonviolent” drug offenders. During his speech at an American Bar Association conference held in San Francisco in August, Holder discussed that he has directed United State’s Attorneys that low-level drug offenders will not be charged with harsh penalties that require minimum mandatory sentences.

Minimum mandatory prison sentences were created in response to the 1980’s war on drugs. These laws required judges to impose mandatory prison terms for certain drug offenses. Holder’s restructuring of these sentences attempts to bring relief to the financial and practical burdens that these sentencing guidelines inflict.


Although the Attorney General’s overhaul of minimum mandatory sentencing is a good start in remedying the overcrowding and racial disparity problems our nation’s prison system currently faces, minimum mandatory laws are still “in the books” and US Attorneys must still abide by these statutes when charging offenders for certain crimes. Therefore, in order to truly do away with minimum mandatory laws, Congress must pass legislation changing or abolishing the minimum mandatory statues.

Holder’s plan to change the minimum mandatory scheme is really an attempt to alleviate the prosecution of certain drug offenders. Marijuana offenses are the most prevalent crimes that are being unfairly prosecuted due to the minimum mandatory laws. Although reducing prosecution of lesser drug offenses, such as marijuana, is a step in the right direction in Holder’s attempt to reform the sentencing system, effective change cannot occur until marijuana laws are completely restructured nation-wide.

In line with the overhaul of his minimum mandatory laws initiative, the Attorney General is furthering his attempt to alleviate the harshness of sentencing on lesser drug offenses by not federally prosecuting marijuana that has been legalized in some states. Specifically, Colorado and Washington have recently legalized marijuana consumption in their states. Holder announced that the US Department of Justice will take a hands-off approach in governing marijuana regulation in these two states. However, he reiterates clearly that the Department of Justice will still maintain the right to prosecute people who engage in greater crimes involving marijuana, such as distribution to minors and involvement in gang-related dealings.

In Florida, the marijuana laws are still strictly in place and Florida prosecutors have not been given any directive to become more lenient on the harsh minimum mandatory laws that are currently set for marijuana offenders. Because these laws remain in place, State Attorneys in Florida continue to prosecute and charge marijuana offenders with the minimum mandatory sentencing found in the Florida statutes. Therefore, although Holder’s changing of minimum mandatory sentencing is a step in the right direction, a real change in the sentencing guidelines cannot come about until the Federal and Florida statutes dealing with minimum mandatory sentencing are changed or deleted.

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