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Sweet: Holder aims to ‘recalibrate’ criminal-justice system

Attorney General Eric Holder speaks American Bar AssociatiAnnual Meeting Monday Aug. 12 2013 San Francisco. In remarks associatiHolder said Obamadministratiis

Attorney General Eric Holder speaks to the American Bar Association Annual Meeting Monday, Aug. 12, 2013, in San Francisco. In remarks to the association, Holder said the Obama administration is calling for major changes to the nation's criminal justice system that would cut back the use of harsh sentences for certain drug-related crimes. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

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Updated: September 14, 2013 6:22AM

WASHINGTON — You’ve done the crime. What’s the fair time?

“As a nation, we are coldly efficient in our incarceration efforts,” Attorney General Eric Holder told the American Bar Association Monday in a speech getting a lot of attention because Holder ordered an end to “draconian” mandatory minimum sentences for most low-level drug offenders.

That’s not a permanent change. To get rid of mandatory sentences — and give federal judges more discretion when it comes to imposing prison time — will take Congress approving changes in the law, and I’ll get to that.

Holder announced a string of actions in his ABA speech — amplified in a Justice Department policy paper released on Monday — representing a major move by the Obama administration to address far more than minor drug offenders.

The nation’s first African-American attorney general, working for the first African-American president, is taking steps that may prove significant in reducing race-based sentencing disparities that are pervasive in the United States.

Black males, Holder said, citing a report released in February, do 20 percent more time than white males convicted of the same crime.

“The president and I agree that it’s time to take a pragmatic approach,” Holder said, in calling for sentencing reform.

Taking the handcuffs off judges when it comes to sentencing nonviolent drug offenders who are not in gangs or part of cartels is the first of what Holder called nothing less than “a series of significant actions to recalibrate America’s federal criminal justice system.”

Part of that reset will now be up to local federal prosecutors who have enormous discretion over whom to pursue. For the first time, local U.S. attorneys are being asked to develop guidelines for when charges should be filed.

“This means that federal prosecutors cannot, and federal prosecutors should not, bring every case or charge every defendant who stands accused of violating federal law,” Holder said.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for every community in the nation — and Holder said that. Explicitly.

Since May, Zach Fardon has been waiting to be confirmed by the Senate as the new U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, based in Chicago. Hopefully, the chamber will pick up the pace in September after a five-week break and vote on his nomination. One of Fardon’s tasks will be to develop “district-specific guidelines” on prosecutions.

How Fardon goes about that process — and what he comes up with as his priorities — will in itself be a priority.

On Friday, Holder briefed Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on the proposals he unveiled in his ABA speech.

Durbin, teaming with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), introduced a bill on Aug. 1 to give federal judges more sentencing discretion for nonviolent offenders. Mandatory sentences — especially for drugs, said Durbin — take away from a judge the ability to consider all the facts concerning the offender and the crime.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Leahy are the sponsors of another bill to restore more authority to judges. “Mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders promote injustice and do not serve public safety,” Paul said.

Unlike immigration and ObamaCare — two polarizing issues before Congress — changing federal sentencing laws at a time when an exploding prison population is costing us billions of dollars already has appeal for the fiscal hawks, Libertarians and civil libertarians in the Senate. The House, as always, is another story.


Twitter: @lynnsweet

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