ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Attorney General Eric Holder unveiled a plan today that's intended to ease overcrowding in federal prisons. The plan would reduce so-called mandatory minimum sentences for some drug-related crimes. Mandatory minimums limit a judge's discretion to impose shorter prison terms. Holder said that the sentences of some elderly, nonviolent prison inmates should also be reduced, and he called for refocusing federal efforts on drug abuse prevention and treatment. NPR's Richard Gonzales was at the event today in San Francisco.
RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Holder's remarks came in a speech before the annual meeting of the American Bar Association. He said harsh prison sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders are out of step with the nation's priorities because they are expensive and ultimately unfair.
ERIC HOLDER: Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems rather than alleviate them.
GONZALES: Holder said the federal prison population - more than 219,000 inmates - is housed in facilities that are 40 percent over capacity. Almost half of the prisoners are doing time for drug-related offenses, and many have substance abuse disorders. According to the Justice Department, the price tag to taxpayers in 2010 was $80 billion.
HOLDER: 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.
GONZALES: Holder said Americans can no longer prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.
HOLDER: Twentieth century criminal justice solutions are not adequate to overcome our 21st century challenges. And, again, it is well past time to implement common-sense changes that will foster safer communities from coast to coast.
GONZALES: But Holder said, in effect, the Justice Department won't wait for Congress to change sentencing laws. Instead, he'll direct federal prosecutors to seek the toughest sentences only for high-level or violent drug traffickers.
HOLDER: 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, deterrence, efficiency and fairness, we in the federal government can become both smarter and tougher on crime.
GONZALES: The changes Holder outlined already enjoy bipartisan support in the Senate where Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky and Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont are working together on a bill to give federal judges more flexibility in sentencing. The attorney general also acknowledged that 17 states, both red and blue, already have moved to redirect resources away from the incarceration model towards services like drug treatment and supervision.
In light of these reforms, the attorney general is a bit late to the party, says Vikrant Reddy, a policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin.
VIKRANT REDDY: This stuff is already happening at the state level. And in particular, it's been happening in a lot of very prominent conservative states: Texas, where I live, in Georgia, in South Carolina, South Dakota. It's really terrific that the federal government is finally pursuing criminal justice reform because it's long overdue at the federal level.
GONZALES: Attorney General Holder didn't go as far as to say that the war on drugs is a failure. Instead, he called it unsustainable. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.