Holder Announces Reforms to 'Mandatory Minimum' Drug Sentencing

Judge's rules NYPD's controversial practice can continue with added reforms, oversight.
38:45 | 08/12/13

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Transcript for Holder Announces Reforms to 'Mandatory Minimum' Drug Sentencing
This is a special report from ABC. Hello I'm Dan -- in New York with a CBC news digital special report attorney general Eric Holder is set to announce some changes to mandatory minimum sentences. In fact eliminating them for low level drug offenders and new policies gold. -- to ease prison overcrowding. And save money now supporters say you also make the system. More fair because mandatory minimums disproportionately target minorities and before. -- attorney general is about to make his way up to the podium at the American Bar Association meeting in San Francisco. That meeting got under way just a couple of hours ago and some clout to take the stage and announced these historic changes. That are expected to a couple of moments -- -- -- now live up to San Francisco specifically -- -- Take it back. I think it's a pleasure to be here. And when I think -- for those. Kind words and four. His exemplary service as chair. Of the American bar association's. House of delegates. -- it is a pleasure for me to be here with you this morning. And it's also -- privilege to -- so many friends colleagues and leaders including the United States attorney for the northern district of California. Linda -- Here in San Francisco for the eighty -- when he thirteen annual meeting. No I'd like to think the delegates -- and you've done to bring us together this week. And for your dedication to serving as faithful stewards of the greatest legal system that the world has ever known. From its earliest days our republic has been bound to get divide this system and by the values that define. These doubts equality. Opportunity. And justice under law first codified in the United States constitution. And they were renewed and reclaimed. Nearly a century later by this organizations. Earliest members. With the founding of the ABA 1878. America's leading legal -- came together for the first time. To revolutionize there to revolutionize our profession in the decades that followed. Be creating new standards for training and professional conduct. And they establish the law. As it clear and focused location at the heart of our country's identity. Throughout history. Americans of all backgrounds and walks of life have have turned to our legal system to settle disputes. But also hold accountable those who have done wrong and even to answer fundamental questions about who we all -- And who we aspire to be as a people. -- issues of slavery. And segregation. One voting. And violence equal rights and equal justice generations of -- lawyers have engaged directly in the work of building a more perfect union. Today under the leadership of my good friend president laurel bellows. This organization is fighting against budget cuts that undermined the ability of our courts to administer justice. You're standing with me. It was my colleagues across the Obama administration. In calling for congressional action -- common sense measures to prevent and reduce gun violence. And -- advancing our global fight against the heinous crime human trafficking. Been in so many ways today's EBA is reminding. Yes that although our laws must be continually updated. How shared dedication to the cause of justice and the ideals set forth by our constitution. Must remain constant. It is this sense of dedication it brings me to San Francisco today. To enlist your partnership and forging a more just society to ask for your leadership and cleaning once more -- values that we hold dear. And to draw upon the ABA's legacy of achievement -- calling -- when every member of our profession to question that which is accepted truth. To challenge its debt which is unjust. To break free of a tired of the status quo. And to take bold steps bold steps to reform and to strengthen America's criminal justice system in concrete. And in fundamental ways. It's time. In fact it's well past time to address persistent needs an unwarranted disparities by considering a fundamentally new approach. Nosed prosecutor. As a judge. As an attorney in private practice and now is our nation's attorney general I have seen the criminal justice system first -- -- from nearly every -- And while I have the utmost faith in him dedication to America's legal system. We must face the reality that as it stands our system is in too many ways broke. The cost that we are on is far from sustainable. And it is our time. And it is our duty to identify those areas we can improve in order to better advance the cause of justice for all Americans. Even as we see most crime rates decline. We need to examine new law enforcement strategies and better allocate resources to keep pace with today's continuing threats. As violence spikes in some of our greatest citizens. Now. There's studies show. Six in ten American children are exposed to violence at some point in their lives. And nearly one in four college women experienced some form of sexual assault by -- senior year. We need fresh solutions for assisting victims and empowering. Survivors. As a so called war on drugs enters its fifth decade. We need to ask whether it and the approach is that comprises. Have been truly effective. And build on the administration's efforts that by the Office of National Drug Control Policy to usher in the new approach. And with an outsize. Unnecessarily large prison population. We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish. Deterrent. And to -- ability but not. Merely to warehouse and to forget. Today eight -- vicious cycle of poverty. Criminality and incarceration trips to many Americans and weekends too many communities. And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems rather than alleviate. It's clear as we come together today that. Too many Americans. Go to too many prisons for far too long and for no truly good law enforcement reason. It's clear. It's clear that -- -- very basic level. The twentieth century criminal justice solutions are are not adequate to overcome our -- -- first century challenges. And again it is well past time to implement common sense changes that will Foster -- for communities from coast to coast. He's -- issues the president and I have been talking about for as long as I've known. Issues he's felt strongly about it since -- days as a community organizer on the Southside of Chicago. He's worked hard over the years to protect our communities to keep violent criminals off our streets -- to make sure that those who break the law held accountable. He's also made it part of his mission to reduce the disparities in a criminal justice system in Illinois. He passed legislation. -- addressed racial -- to -- police departments and how they could avoid racial bias. -- 2010. This administration successfully advocated for the reduction of the unjust 100 -- one sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. That's the balance the president and I tried to strike. Because important to safeguard our communities and -- true art mountains and we've made progress. -- you heard the president say a few weeks ago when he spoke about the treatment Martin case he also believes as site. -- our work is far from finished. And that's why over the next several months the president will continue to reach out to members of congress from from both parties. Those governors mayors and and other leaders. To build on the great work being done across the country to reduce violent crime and reform -- criminal justice system. We need to keep taking steps to make sure people feel safe and secure in their homes and communities. And part of that means doing something about the lives being harmed and that helped. By criminal justice system that -- -- of the American people as well as it should. At the beginning of this year -- launched a targeted Justice Department view of the of the federal system. Identify obstacles inefficiencies. And inequities and to address ineffective. Policies. Today I'm pleased to announce the results of this review which include a series of what I think are significant actions that the department -- undertaken. To better protect the American people from crime. To increase support for those and become victims and to ensure public safety by improving our criminal justice system. As a whole. Now we have -- state assistance we've been impressed by the policy shifts and some have made. I hope that other state systems will follow our lead to implement changes as well. Changes that I announced today underscore this administration's strong commitment to common sense criminal justice reform. And our efforts must begin with law enforcement. -- particularly in these challenging times when budgets are tight. Federal sequestration has impose untenable and I think irresponsible cuts and leaders across government are being asked to do more with less. Coordination between America's federal state local and tribal law enforcement agencies has never been more important. It is imperative that we maximize our resources by focusing on protecting national security. -- combating violent crimes -- fighting against financial fraud and by safeguarding. The most vulnerable members of our society. This means that federal prosecutors ten -- And federal prosecutors should not. -- every case but charged every defendant who stands accused of violating federal law. Some issues -- best handled at the state or local level. And that's why I have directed today the United States attorney community to develop specific. Little -- -- guidelines. Consistent with our national priorities. For determining when federal charges should be filed and when they should not. They've also issued guidance to ensure -- Every case we bring service a substantial federal interest in complements the work of our law enforcement partners. I have directed all US -- -- and to update. Comprehensive anti violence strategies for badly afflicted areas within the year districts. And -- also encouraged him. To convene regular law enforcement forms with state and local partners to refine these plans to Foster greater efficiency. And to facilitate more open communication and cooperation. By targeting the most serious offenses prosecuting the most dangerous criminals. Directing assistance to crime hot spots and pursuing new ways to promote public safety -- efficiency and fairness. We in the federal government can be Kumble smarter and tougher on crime. By providing leadership to all levels of law enforcement. And bringing intelligence driven strategies to bear we can bolster the efforts of local leaders US attorneys and others in the fight against violent crime. Beyond this work through the Community Oriented Policing Services -- cops. The Justice Department is helping police departments -- officers on the -- while enhancing training and technical support for the last four years. We've allocated more than one point five billion dollars cops hiring program to -- would create. -- -- thousand jobs and local law enforcement. In the coming weeks we will announce a new round cops grants totaling more than -- 110 million dollars. To support the hiring of military veterans in school resource officers throughout the country. In addition to our landmark defending childhood initiative and that the national forum on youth violence prevention. We are rallying -- federal leaders state officials private organizations and community groups to to better understand and address and prevent. Young people's exposure to violence we have. Assimilating new -- to respond to the extreme levels of violence faced by far too many American Indians and Alaska native children. And next month we will launch. A national public awareness campaign and -- -- he -- violence prevention summit. To call for comprehensive. Solutions. And through the department's civil rights division and other components we will continue to work with allies like the Department of Education. And others throughout the federal government and beyond. To confront these school to prison pipeline. And those zero tolerance school discipline policies that really do not promote public safety. And -- transformed too many educational institutions from doorways of opportunity to gateways to the criminal justice system. A minor school disciplinary offense should put a student in the principal's office and -- -- police -- We'll also continuing. Will also continue offering resources and support to survivors of suspect sexual assault domestic violence and dating violence. Earlier this summer I announced a -- Justice Department initiative -- known as vision 21. Which office and he really unprecedented snapshot of the current state of victim services it calls for sweeping. Evidence -- changes to bring these services into the when he for centuries. To a -- -- survivors by closing research gaps in developing new ways to reach out to those who need our assistance the most. You know this work shows I think tremendous promise I'm hopeful that we'll help to bring assistance and healing to more and more crime victims across the country. But again it is only the beginning. More broadly from the department's access to justice initiative be civil rights division and a range of -- programs. This administration is bringing stakeholders together and providing direct support to address inequalities and -- every day in America's courtrooms. And to fulfill the supreme court's historic decision Gideon V Wainwright. Now fifty years ago last march this landmark ruling a forum -- every defendant charged with a serious crime. Has -- has a right to an attorney even if he or she cannot afford one. It America's indigent defense systems continue to exist in a state of crisis. And let's be frank -- promise of Gideon is not is not being met. To address this crisis. To address this crisis current congress must not only -- the forced budget cuts that have decimated public defenders nationwide. They must fix saying it. Existing -- defense programs. Provide access to counsel for more juvenile defendants and he's increased funding for federal public defender offices. And every legal profession. -- every member of this audience must answer the ABA's call to contribute to this case through pro Bono service. And help realize the promise of equal justice for all. As we come together this morning this same promise must -- assault acknowledged that although incarceration has a significant role to play in our justice system. Widespread incarceration of federal state and local levels is both ineffective. And unsustainable. Imposes a significant economic burden. Totaling eighty billion dollars in 2010 alone and it comes with human and moral -- that are impossible to calculate. As a nation we are coldly efficient. In our incarceration. It's. Now while the entire US population has increased by about a third since 1980. The federal prison population has grown by an astonishing rate by almost 800%. He still growing despite. The fact that federal prisons are operating at nearly 40%. Above capacity. Even though this country -- prices just 5% of the world's population. We incarcerate almost a quarter of the world's prisoners. More than 2191000. Federal inmates are currently behind bars. Almost half of them are serving time for drug related crimes. And many have substance use disorders. Nine to ten million more people cycle through America's local jails each year. And roughly 40% of former federal prisoners more than 60%. The former state prisoners are -- arrested. For happier supervision revoked within three years after their release at great cost American taxpayers. And often for technical -- minor violations of the terms of there release. As a society we pay much too high -- price whenever our system fails to deliver outcomes that deter and punish crime. Keep us safe and ensure that those -- -- their debts had a chance to become productive citizens. Right now unwarranted disparities are far too common. As President Obama said just last month. It's time to ask tough questions about how we can strengthen our communities. How we can support young people. How we can address the fact young black and Latino men are disproportionately likely to become involved in our criminal justice system has victims. As well. As perpetrators. We also must confront the reality that once they're in -- system people of color. Often face harsher punishments than your peers. One deeply troubling report. Police in February of this year indicates that in recent years. Black male offenders have received sentences nearly 20% longer than those imposed -- white males convicted of similar crimes. This isn't just unacceptable. It is shameful. It is. It is unworthy of our great country it is unworthy of our great legal tradition. And in response I have today directed a group of US attorneys to examine sentencing disparities. And to develop recommendations on how we can address them. In this area and in many others in ways both large and small we as a country we must resolve to do better. Be president and -- read -- it's time to take a pragmatic approach. And that's why am proud to announce today that the Justice Department will take a series of significant actions to be calibrate. America's federal criminal justice system. We will start by fundamentally rethinking the notion of mandatory minimum sentences for drug related crimes. Some statutes that mandate inflexible sentences in this is regardless of the individual -- it is an issue any particular case. Reduce the discretion available to prosecutors judges and -- juries. Because they oftentimes generate unfairly long sentences they breed disrespect for the system. When applied indiscriminately they do not serve the public safety. Danny and as the youngest son the enforcement priorities that we have -- have had a destabilizing effect -- particularly particular communities. Largely poor and of color. And applied in appropriately. They are ultimately counterproductive. This is why I have -- mandated a modification. Of the Justice Department's charging policies so that certain low level nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large scale organizations gangs or cartels. Will no longer be charged with -- -- that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences. Day. They now will be charged with offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their. Individual Condo rather -- excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals. -- drug. -- By preserving the most severe penalties for serious high level war violent drug traffickers. We can better promote public safety deterrence and rehabilitation. While making our expenditures smarter and more productive. And we've seen that this approach has bipartisan support in congress -- a number of senators including senators Dick Durbin Patrick Leahy might -- and Rand Paul. Have been describing -- very promising legislation. Aimed at giving federal judges more discretion. And applying mandatory minimums to certain drug offenders. Such legislation will ultimately save a country billions of dollars while keeping us more safe. And president -- look forward to working with members of both parties to refine and who advanced these polls. Second the department has now updated its framework for considering compassionate release for inmates facing. Extraordinary -- compelling circumstances. And posed no threat to the public. Lady won't be Bureau of Prisons -- the criteria which will be considered for inmates seeking compassionate release. For medical reasons. Today I can announce additional expansions to our policies including -- criteria for. For elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes and who have served significant portions. -- -- -- Of course as our primary responsibility we must ensure the American public is protected from from anyone who -- -- you pose a danger to -- community. But considering the applications of nonviolent offenders -- -- careful review process that ultimately allows judges. To consider whether release is warranted is the fair thing to do. And it's a Smart thing to do was well because it will enable us to use our limited resources to house those -- The greatest threat. Finally. My colleagues are taking steps to identify and to -- best practices for enhancing the use of diversion programs such as drug treatment and community service initiatives that can serve as effective alternatives to incarceration. There are US attorneys are leading the way in this regard. Working alongside -- judiciary to meet safety imperatives while avoiding incarceration. In certain cases. South Dakota. -- joint federal tribal program has helped prevent at risk young people from getting involved in the federal prison system. Thereby improving lives. Saving tax -- -- sources and keeping communities safe. This is exactly the kind of proven innovation that federal policy makers and state and tribal leaders should emulate. That's why the Justice Department is working through a program called the justice -- investment initiative. To bring state leaders local stakeholders private partners and federal officials together. -- comprehensively reform corrections and criminal justice practices. Now in recent years. No fewer than seventeen states supported by the Justice Department. And led by governors and legislators of both parties. Have directed funding away from prison construction and toward evidence based programs and services like treatment and supervision. That are designed to reduce recidivism. In Kentucky brings -- new legislation has reserved prison beds for the most serious offenders -- -- resources and community supervision. Evidence based alternative programs. As result the state is projected to reduce its prison population by more than 3000. Over the next ten years saving more than 400. Million dollars. Texas investments in drug treatment for nonviolent offenders and changes to parole policies. What about a reduction the prison population of more than 5000 inmates last year alone. The same -- similar efforts helped Arkansas reduce its prison population by more than 14100. From Georgia North Carolina. And -- life. And far beyond reinvestment and serious reforms are improving public safety and -- being precious resource. Don't let me be clear. These measures have not compromised. Public safety. In fact many states have seen drops in recidivism. At the same time -- prison populations were declining. Policy change that have led to these welcome results must be study we must be emulated. While our federal prison system has continued to slowly expand. Significant state level reductions have led to three consecutive years of decline in America's overall prison population including 2012. The largest crop ever experienced inning in a single year. So clearly these strategies can work. Steve attractive overwhelming bipartisan -- red states as well as boosting its and it's past time for others to take notice. I am also announcing today that I directed every United States attorney to -- -- prevention and reentry coordinator in his or her district. To ensure that this where he is and will remain a top priority throughout the country. And my colleagues. In my colleagues they'll keep working closely with state leaders agency partners including members of the federal interagency reentry councils and groups like the American Bar Association. To extend these efforts. In recent years with the department's support these BBA -- catalog tens of thousands of statutes and regulations. -- imposed unwise and counter productive collateral consequences with -- housing or employment for example. When people who have been convicted of crimes. I -- state attorneys general in a variety of federal -- -- to review their own agency's regulations. And today I can announce that directed all Department of Justice components going forward. To consider whether any proposed regulations or guidance may impose unnecessary collateral consequences. And those seeking to rejoin their communities. The bottom line. The bottom line is that while -- aggressive enforcement of federal criminal statutes remains necessary. We cannot simply prosecute. -- incarcerate our way to becoming a -- for a nation. To be effective federal efforts must also focus on prevention. And the entry that we must never stop being tough on crime. But we must also be Smart and efficient when battling crime and the conditions. And in the -- individual choices that read. Ultimately -- is about much more than fairness for those war released from prison is a matter of public safety and publicly. In explain economic cents. It's about who we are. As people. It has the potential to positively impact the lives of every man woman and child in every neighborhood and city in the United States. After all whenever rescinded his crimes committed innocent people are a -- -- -- communities are less safe. Britain's on law enforcement -- increase an already strained resources are depleted. Even further. Today and together we must declare that we will no longer saddled with such -- unjust and unsustainable. Status quo. To do so would be to betrayed our history our shared commitment to justice -- the founding principles of our nation. Instead we must recommit ourselves as a country. Tackling the most difficult questions. In the most costly problems. No matter how complex for intractable made me appear. We must -- his legal professionals lend our talents our training and our diverse perspectives to advancing this critical work. And we must resolve as people. To take firm stand against violence against victimization. Against inequality and for. Justice. This is our chance to bring America's criminal justice system in line with our most sacred -- This is our opportunity to divine. This time our time as -- of progress and innovation. This is our promise to forge a more just society. And this is our solemn obligation. As stewards of the law and servants of -- -- in the text and -- -- frank. And constructive dialogue about the need to reform -- a broken system. To fight for the sweeping systemic changes that we need. And to uphold our dearest values -- -- -- -- always hats. Calling our peers colleagues but merely to serve their clients were to win their cases. Between sure that in every case. In every circumstance in every community justice is done. This after all is the cost it has been our common -- -- more than two centuries. The ideals has guided BA BA since its inception in the gold that will drive additional actions by. President Obama and leaders throughout his administration in the months ahead. Of course we recognize. As she. Got the reforms -- announced today and others that we must consider explore implement in the coming years. These will not take hold overnight. There will be setbacks and there will be false starts. We will encounter resistance we will encounter opposition. But if we keep faith in one another. And in the principles that we've always -- -- if we stay true to the ABA's history as they drive growth positive change. And if we keep moving forward together. Knowing that the need for this work will outlast us but determined to make the difference that we seek. I know we can all be confident in where these efforts will lead us. I look forward to everything that we will undoubtedly achieve. And I will always be proud to stand alongside -- together that. We're just brighter and more prosperous future for all our citizens deserve. Thank you all so much -- Go -- general Eric Holder speaking before the American Bar Association meeting in San Francisco there. What the big changes are nonviolent from. Are treated by the court. At issue mandatory minimum sentencing which can send people convicted of possessing drugs. Long prison sentences. We're joined now from Washington DCI ABC -- lost a couple of more about what those new guidelines could mean so should or should I -- -- -- -- proposals. Change -- prosecutors essentially go about their work. Well. The most important thing that he spoke about and he's clearly passionate about is that this would change the -- the week that some low level. Criminals are charged so it would really do away with because -- that he's the word mandate do away with it. We that in turn is that he say he's -- were draconian for some drug prices have these would be offenders. That -- low -- in his words low level nonviolent and not. Attached to gangs are any cartel. Net mandatory minimums. Have been criticized for years now this is not a thing that's come up in recent -- I essentially is saying that did they -- disproportionate part might target minorities. And the poor and so it begs the question and whizzer -- -- specific reasoning behind the Obama administration choosing to make the action now. Yes I think really it's because. Both Eric Holder and the president is want is part of their legacy and it's important part of of what they want to leave behind when they do leave office when they do and their term and -- Even Eric Holder mentioned this in his remarks. He mentioned the president's own personal remarks country -- -- last month I think that this is all tied in together and it really windy. Are done when their -- that this is part of the legacy they want to leave behind and I think that's why you're seeing it being done now. I -- look at some of the numbers here we take a look at the -- we've got more than 2191000. Inmates in federal prisons today that is. 40%. Above capacity and then this 50%. Are incarcerated for drug related crimes so what -- the selling points of these new guidelines is that this in fact we'll save money. Residents will essentially as attorney general sense not being warehouses for convicts and invited in the political calculus has got to be factored into this. -- and you're gonna see it to buying other side of the aisle political opponents some Republicans. I think I -- come out almost immediately and say that this will put more Americans at risk. But. There are plenty of people that will support -- and I think that the reasoning you're seeing as I said before that this is very important to the administration to get had of this now adds. You know there's also IG said the financial calculus to this at this. Could -- be sold as it will save Americans money because you won't just having people that have these low level drug crimes -- be first time offenders. In jails for these very long sentences and this had been talked about for long time and finally as the important we're hearing things that you see is that. That the justice permanent mandating -- this isn't outgoing foreign nap today. So it. As far as political. Partisanship can be determined oftentimes is a conservative or liberal issue but is it as clearly defined in this particular issue will there be. Rand Paul libertarian types that might be pushing forward forward against this. What I think it's possible I think that. As you're seeing when these justice issues recently that there hasn't really been. A black and white or a liberal and conservative a Republican or Democrat you see some Republicans take a different. Look at and and it's really actually splitting apart the Republican Party this is another issue that could. He under that I guess what we'll have to -- -- -- I think that you're -- really see some Republicans say. This is putting Americans at risk and then you're gonna see some Republicans say no this is the more fair -- -- it also receives taxpayers' money. Now in addition of these low level nonviolent drug offenders -- in effect -- this is also changes and guidelines for elderly nonviolent criminals as well right. Right and that's in the same way it's going to people that are old heard that. Also have low level drug offenses or or low level offenses are not tied to any gangs that this would. That it's it's it's the -- -- would have less and of these long time draconian in his words. Sentences and they would have less jail time less time really isn't an end this also frees up judges sometimes. These cases go in front of judges and they have no choice they have to you -- these mandatory sentences even if it is an older person or first time offender now. It obviously you know it seems really the underlying drive behind this is is the impact that it could have on society as a whole as far as the kind of threat the violent level threat. That some of these offenders could be posing to society and that I was who would beg the question and what about people convicted of financial crimes and these guidelines change anything for them. It's possible even though the focus of course on the speech was on these drug crimes and and his low level person offenses but it's possible -- -- with. With a financial crimes -- people that. A lot. -- only one person has been convicted in the 2008. Financial disaster but there have been other people in -- financial and to have been given long. Set sentences as a deterrent so you see both that even though mostly. When it comes to financial crimes people arguments small sends -- They're obviously not missing have been jailed as a drug offender. And this could change that although the focus of the speech was of course on -- low level drug Hutton. -- drug offenders. And just -- and asked where this discovery could pull a little bit just a look at the overall tone of the attorney general's presentations in the administration is calling this. Smart on crime as opposed to tough on crime what was the thinking behind that -- of. For a -- and really the essence of it that they want to be smarter they don't want and just as you said where are as the -- said the warehouse of drug offenders they want to find people that. -- a threat to society and really that was a low very large focus of this speech find the people that are tied to these gangs. That are violent -- some of these drug cartels that fight wasting police -- -- -- and prosecutor efforts on these. First time offenders low level offenders that -- wasting money and time that could be used for serious violent offenders aren't ABC and that could be a selling point really for the administration. Absolutely as I was -- in making the case towards all involved ABC's shuttle launch in Washington these seizures thank you so much -- time -- your inside a fully happened. On the attorney general's speech we have on abcnews.com. For -- -- Dan -- and New York with this ABC news digital special report. This has been a special report from me.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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