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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

In Milestone for Sentencing Reform, Attorney General Holder Announces Record Reduction in Mandatory Minimums Against Nonviolent Drug Offenders

New Data Revealed by Justice Department Shows Rate at Which Feds Pursued Mandatory Minimum Penalties in Drug Trafficking Cases Has Hit Record Low

In One of His Final Speeches Before Stepping Down, Holder Lauds Progress In Sentencing Reform Initiative He Launched in ‘13

In a major advance for the sentencing reform project that has been one of his signature initiatives, Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday announced that federal drug prosecutors have shifted away from seeking mandatory minimums at record rates, while reserving stricter sentences for more serious offenders.

Speaking at the National Press Club, Attorney General Holder revealed that in the first full year since he imposed reforms to the Justice Department’s charging policies in nonviolent drug trafficking cases, federal prosecutors not only prosecuted fewer such cases overall, but also pursued mandatory minimum sentences at a dramatically lower rate than the year prior.  In fact, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, in FY2014, federal drug prosecutors pursued mandatory minimums at the lowest rate on record.

“For years prior to this administration, federal prosecutors were not only encouraged – but required – to always seek the most severe prison sentence possible for all drug cases, no matter the relative risk they posed to public safety.  I have made a break from that philosophy,” said Attorney General Holder.  “While old habits are hard to break, these numbers show that a dramatic shift is underway in the mindset of prosecutors handling nonviolent drug offenses.  I believe we have taken steps to institutionalize this fairer, more practical approach such that it will endure for years to come.”

The figures announced Tuesday were compiled by the U.S. Sentencing Commission at the request of the Justice Department to measure the impact of several reforms implemented in 2013 through Attorney General Holder’s “Smart on Crime” initiative.  Those reforms—aimed at restoring fairness to the criminal justice system and at confronting the problem of America’s overcrowded prison system—instructed federal prosecutors to exercise greater discretion in selecting drug cases to bring to federal court.  The data suggests prosecutors heeded that call, as the overall number of federal drug trafficking cases dropped by six percent in FY2014.

While the sheer number of drug cases went down, the data also showed that federal prosecutors have prioritized more serious cases.  Holder pointed to a rise in the average guideline minimum sentence, from 96 months in FY2013 to 98 months this past year.  That suggests the severity of offenses prosecuted in FY2014 was slightly higher.

Most important of all, Holder said, was the trend observed with respect to mandatory minimums.  After several years in a row that saw federal prosecutors pursue such mandatory sentences in roughly two-thirds of drug cases, last year’s rate dropped to one-in-two.  The Attorney General said this showed that the department was succeeding in reserving these strict sentences for the worst types of offenders rather than imposing indiscriminately.

“This figure, perhaps more than any other, shows the significant impact that our policy reforms are having,” said Attorney General Holder.  “These are extremely encouraging results.”

Holder also presented statistics rebutting past criticisms of the “Smart on Crime” initiative.  For instance, though some warned that the reduced application of mandatory minimums would remove the incentive for defendants to act as government witnesses, the Sentencing Commission’s data showed that defendants provided cooperation at the same rate as in years past.

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Access to Justice
Updated April 28, 2016