In a speech that has been hailed by many as the first step in a long way to go toward ending the failed War on Drugs, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a major drug policy shift.
Our Daytona Beach defense lawyers understand that Holder instructed federal prosecutors to effectively stand down on low-level drug cases. He urged them to avoid filing charges that could trigger harsh minimum mandatory sentences. He also advised prosecution teams to, whenever possible, allow state and local entities to handle lower-level cases.
Holder noted the vast racial disparity with regard to drug crime prosecutions and said lengthy minimum mandatory sentences that allowed non-violent criminals to languish in federal prisons for decades weren't appropriate.
To be sure, Holder's announcements are a welcome change. We aren't used to hearing a "tough on crime" attorney general talk this way about drug offenses. However, the actual impact of Holder's policy shift may be less immediate, less sweeping than it might seem at first glance.
The reason has to do with the fact that his directives only affect those at the federal level. Few misdemeanor drug offenses or lower-level felony drug offenses are handled by federal prosecutors.
Holder's goal is to reduce federal prison rosters, which do indeed have a fair number of drug offenders. However, let's put it into perspective: The United States, which comprises 5 percent of the world population, incarcerates 40 percent of the world's prisoners. In all, there are about 2 million people locked up in this country at any given time. Of those, about 10 percent are in the federal system. About one quarter are incarcerated for drug offenses. Only a fraction of those are low-level offenders.
The majority of drug offenders are incarcerated in county jails and state prisons.
The instruction by Holder to allow state courts to handle more of these cases probably won't do much to reduce the amount of incarceration these offenders face. Florida in particular is very harsh on drug offenders.
For example, Florida Statute 893.135 explains the state's stance on minimum mandatory sentencing for drug trafficking. Any person found with between 25 and 2,000 pounds of marijuana, or 300 to 2,000 plants, will serve a minimum mandatory term of 3 years in prison, plus pay a $25,000 fine. Up to 10,000 pounds or 10,000 plants, and the person will serve a minimum of 7 years and pay double the fine. Anything above 10,000 pounds or 10,000 plants, the minimum prison term is 15 years, with a fine of $200,000.
Some might say a person with this much pot isn't a low-level offender. However, the judge is not allowed to take into account mitigating factors, like whether that marijuana was being grown for medicinal purposes. It also doesn't allow for judicial discretion if the defendant wasn't tied to any violent gang or cartel.
Similar minimum mandatory terms are spelled out for trafficking of cocaine, opiates and other controlled substances.
It's possible that Holder's speech could influence state prosecutors to show more discretion in the drug cases they pursue, but absent a direct order from the state attorney general, we're not counting on it.
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