The Obama administration on Thursday threw its weight behind a proposal that it says could cut the average prison sentence for a federal drug defendant by 11 months, a change designed to help reduce the massive U.S. prison population.
Attorney General Eric Holder endorsed the idea in testimony before the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a government body in Washington that guides federal judges on how long they should sentence people convicted of crimes.
The United States keeps a larger proportion of its population behind bars than any other country except for the Seychelles, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies in London.
The proposed changes would occur within detailed tables that indicate how many months or years a defendant should get. Holder's office says the impact could be wide, affecting about 70 percent of federal drug trafficking defendants in future cases if the commission adopts the proposal.
"Certain types of cases result in too many Americans going to prison for too long, and at times for no truly good law enforcement reason," Holder, the top U.S. law enforcement official, told the commission.
One in 28 U.S. children has a parent behind bars, Holder said. "This focused reliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable. It comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate," he said.
Federal judges have some discretion to sentence defendants as they see fit, but they are given a 590-page manual for advice.
According to the current manual, someone convicted of a crime involving 500 grams (18 ounces) of powder cocaine might be expected to get a prison sentence between 63 and 78 months depending on additional factors. Under the proposal, the expected sentence for that person would drop to a range of 51 to 63 months.
The average sentence imposed on federal drug offenders would fall to 51 months from 62, a reduction of 18 percent, according to an estimate provided by the Justice Department.
The federal prison population would fall by about 6,550 inmates over five years, the department said. There are about 216,000 federal inmates.
VOTE POSSIBLE IN APRIL
The seven-member Sentencing Commission could vote on the proposal as soon as April after it finishes receiving public comments. The proposal, if adopted, would not affect past cases.
Congress, which passed mandatory minimum sentences and related laws in the 1980s and 1990s, has the authority to block the commission proposal, but political support for lengthy prison terms has weakened lately.
Members of the Sentencing Commission quizzed Holder about the impact that shorter prison terms would have.
In response to a question from U.S. District Judge Patti Saris, the commission chairwoman, Holder said that an earlier change that eased sentences for crack cocaine offenses had not reduced the willingness of drug defendants to cooperate with investigators.
U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer asked whether some of the savings from imprisoning fewer people could be directed to help the transition of inmates back into society.
"That's precisely what we want to do," Holder responded. "The savings that we will reap will allow us to do all of those things. In addition, it will allow us to hire greater numbers of prosecutors, greater numbers of agents."
Dabney Friedrich, a commissioner and former lawyer in the George W. Bush White House, said she was concerned that, in a broader way, the Justice Department was not doing enough to ensure uniformity in sentences nationwide.
"I'd like to hear what specific steps, if any, you are taking to ensure that prosecutors across the country get consistent supervisory guidance," she said.
Holder, a former judge, said that although the system has never been perfect, the department has training and supervision in place.
Uniformity is not always desirable, he added. "What I'm looking for is an individualized determination, to see what is it that is just," he said. "I understand that that necessarily means that we're putting a human element into this."
In a reflection of growing bipartisan interest in shorter sentences, Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois and Republican Mike Lee of Utah are co-sponsoring legislation in the Senate that would cut some mandatory minimum sentences in half.
Holder, a senior member of President Barack Obama's Cabinet, has for months pushed lawmakers and his own prosecutors to rethink long, mandatory prison terms, which he argues lead to spiraling prison costs and damaged families.
According to data kept by the International Centre for Prison Studies, 707 of every 100,000 Americans are in prison or in jail awaiting trial. That compares with 472 in Russia, 284 in Iran, 274 in Brazil, 210 in Mexico, 149 in England and Wales, 124 in China, 118 in Canada, 100 in France and 77 in Germany.
Only the Seychelles, an Indian Ocean archipelago, tops the United States at 709.