NEW ORLEANS - U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says the criminal justice system is broken and he's calling for massive reforms, including scaling back sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenders with no ties to gangs or cartels.
Holder is calling on U.S. attorneys across the country to change the way they charge these offenders so they don't face mandatory minimum sentences. He said it could reduce federal incarceration rates, which have increased eight fold since the 1980s. Federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent over capacity.
The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, with Louisiana locking up more people per capita than any other state, said Katherine Mattes, interim director of the Tulane Law School Criminal Litigation Clinic.
“We're sort of ground zero for over incarceration,” said Mattes.
That's why some are hoping Holder's call to scale back sentences for certain federal offenders will prompt changes at the state and local level, too.
“I hope that this will set a tone and a policy that we can then adopt and look to for how we prosecute and where we set our priorities,” said Mattes.
Changes will likely be regional, she said.
Dana Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, said he's looking over policies and will make changes accordingly.
Boente said the initiative will affect some cases, but said federal prosecutors in Southeast Louisiana are largely focusing their attention on gang activity and higher level drug offenders, which would not fall under the latest initiative.
“In a time of scarce resources, you try and serve the community the best you can,” said Boente. “We have put a great deal of attention and resources into prosecuting gangs.”
The key, supporters said, is that it's opening a national dialogue.
“If we heed this call, this can really revolutionize what the criminal justice system looks like in Louisiana,” said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana.
“Clearly incarceration has failed stemming the drug trade, that's a fact,” said Jim Bernazzani retired special agent in charge of the FBI’s New Orleans Field Office. “The answer is not more prison space, the answer is not more cops, the answer is education, social help, and get kids the help they need.”
Louisiana State Representative Austin Badon, D- New Orleans, has a similar initiative. He worked to reduce sentences for simple marijuana possession convictions during the last legislative session. His bill failed, but he says he'll try again.
“It will specifically help people in the African American community as well as the Hispanic community, who are disproportionately prosecuted and incarcerated for low level crimes,” said Badon. “We're putting them away for life. We're taking them away from their families. We're making them lose their jobs. We're taking them out of an educational environment and the taxpayers we have to foot the bill for it.”
A spokesman for the Orleans Parish District Attorney's office said mandatory minimum sentences for drug convictions are based on the amount, or weight, of the drug with which the offender is caught.
"District Attorney Cannizzaro has aggressively pursued the so called 'weight' cases. Possession of significant quantities of illegal narcotics goes hand-in-hand with the distribution of illegal drugs,” said Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman. “As we have seen from the recent gang indictments, the distribution of illegal narcotics is fueling the disproportionate level of violence on the streets of this city, and the DA will use every prosecutorial tool in his arsenal to stop the violence.”
“The office maintains a close working relationship with our Federal law enforcement agencies. If this change in policy causes them to bring more 'weight' cases to the DA's office for prosecution, then we will assist our Federal partners in any way that we can."
The federal mandatory minimum is five years without parole for an offender caught with 100 marijuana plants, or 100 kilos of the drug, according to the nonprofit group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. The sentence increases to 10 years without parole if an offender is caught with 1,000 plants, or 1,000 kilos of the drug.
A conviction for carrying 28 grams of crack cocaine or 100 grams of powder cocaine carries a mandatory federal minimum of five years, according to FAMM.
Experts say Holder's initiative is a first step. Whether we see a sweeping overhaul of the criminal justice system will be up to lawmakers.