With the U.S. facing massive overcrowding in its prisons, Attorney General Eric Holder today announced that the Department of Justice will scale back the use of mandatory minimum prison terms for certain drug-related crimes.

Holder said he would alter Justice Department policy so that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels won’t be charged with offenses that impose those mandatory minimum sentences.

America, he told a meeting of the American Bar Association, will begin ‘fundamentally rethinking the notion of mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes.’

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‘People of color’ in the federal criminal justice system ‘often face harsher punishments than their peers,’ he said.

‘One deeply troubling report, released in February, indicates that–in recent years–black male offenders have received sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes. This isn’t just unacceptable–it is shameful.’

Holder said he had ‘directed a group of U.S. Attorneys to examine sentencing disparities, and to develop recommendations on how we can address them.’

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Hilary Shelton, the director of the the NAACP’s Washington Bureau and the group’s senior vice president for policy and advocacy, said Holder’s message is long overdue.

Race ‘is a major component’ in the lack of fairness in sentencing laws, Shelton told MailOnline.

‘There’s a need for us to address these overly punitive measures, especially when there’s a racial component.’

‘Congress addressed this by recalibrating the sentencing disparities in 2010,’ Shelton said, and ‘they noted the racial differences in sentencing as well.’

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Some sort of reform is needed, says the American Civil Liberties Union, even if it’s not informed by perceptions of racism. Fully 60 per cent of federal drug offenders, the ACLU notes, received mandatory minimum sentences in 2012. One-third of them were sentenced to 10-year terms or longer.

Typically under federal law, crack cocaine users–most often black defendants–who possess only 28 grams of the drug are charged with felonies. Meanwhile, historically white powder cocaine users are not charged with felonies unless they are caught with 500 grams.

That 18-to-1 disparity was 100-to-1 until Congress acted in 2010. But incarceration at the federal level, say some, is still applied in a fashion that appears to play racial favorites.

‘As the so-called “war on drugs” enters its fifth decade,’ Holder said Monday, ‘we need to ask whether it, and the approaches that comprise it, have been truly effective–and build on the Administration’s efforts, led by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, to usher in a new approach.’

‘Some statutes that mandate inflexible sentences . . . have had a destabilizing effect on particular communities, largely poor and of color,’ he added. {snip}

Part of that dysfunction involves overcrowding in the federal prison system, which is now 40 per cent over capacity with 219,000 inmates. {snip}

‘In Texas,’ Holder said Monday, ‘investments in drug treatment for nonviolent offenders and changes to parole policies brought about a reduction in the prison population of more than 5,000 inmates last year alone. The same year, similar efforts helped Arkansas reduce its prison population by more than 1,400.’

‘Federal prosecutors, he explained, ‘cannot–and should not–bring every case or charge every defendant who stands accused of violating federal law.’

Devolving some cases to state or local law enforcers, he suggested, would free up federal government resources while also emphasizing community-level policing.

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‘Aggressive enforcement of federal criminal laws is necessary,’ Holder said Monday, ‘but we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.’

‘Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem, rather than alleviate it.’

‘We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate–not merely to convict, warehouse and forget,’ said the attorney general.

Holder said mandatory minimum sentences ‘breed disrespect for the system. When applied indiscriminately, they do not serve public safety. They have had a disabling effect on communities. And they are ultimately counterproductive.’

Senators Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, Mike Lee, an Utah Republican, and Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, have introduced legislation aimed at giving federal judges more discretion in applying mandatory minimums to certain drug offenders.

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