In a major speech today in front of a meeting of the American Bar Association in San Francisco, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a sea change in the federal government's prosecution and sentencing of non-violent drug offenders. He says that from here forward, people busted for drugs, if they are not kingpins or tied to gangs or violent cartels, will be sentenced according to their conduct and not according to the amount of drugs they're busted with, via mandatory minimum sentences enacted by Congress in the 1980s.

As the Mercury News discusses in the wake of Holder's pre-announced speech, the federal prison system has grown 800 percent since 1980, and there are now 220,000 people living in the system, of which 47 percent are there for drug offenses. Meanwhile, over two million more are incarcerated at the state and county level, meaning that we have the highest incarceration level of any country in the world — 743 per 100,000 people. Many have blamed the Nixon-launched War on Drugs for that, and few can argue that it's been a success, despite the enormous numbers in jail.

"We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation," Holder said. "Widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable." Holder cited both the "moral" issues surrounding long incarcerations and the safety issues in prison, and the disproportionate sentences given to African American males compared to white males convicted of similar crimes.

He also said that "we must never stop being tough on crime," but that authorities need to be smarter about "battling crime and the conditions and the individual choices that breed it."

It is decidedly a second-term move for President Obama and Holder, and something that would have been used against Obama in trying to get re-elected. But it at least echoes the policy Holder established early on in the first administration about de-prioritizing the prosecution of marijuana and medical marijuana — something that the U.S. Attorneys' offices in California quickly reneged upon in the last two years as they went after medical marijuana, apparently due to the fact the unregulated industry was growing out of control in this, the largest state in the union.

The plan is being dubbed Holder's "Smart on Crime" plan, and it also includes new policies with regard to the continued incarceration of elderly prisoners who are no longer a threat to society.

The shift comes two years after the Supreme Court ordered the release of more than 30,000 prisoners from the state system in California due to overcrowding — something the state has been challenging ever since, despite having the most overcrowded prisons in the country, and the largest inmate population. Some have already been pulled out of the system by way of "realignment," and getting assigned to county jails. But just two weeks ago, SCOTUS declined to grant a stay, requested by Governor Jerry Brown, that would delay the scheduled release of the final 10,000. This was all intended to reduce overcrowding in CA prisons from about 200% capicity, to 137%, but Brown now says it will result in the release of some violent criminals.

[Mercury News]