Drug Sentencing Changes

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U.S. Attorney Eric Holder is proposing changes to lower-level drug charges, aimed at reducing the federal prison population. Former Arizona U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton will discuss the proposed change

Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. U.S. attorney general Eric Holder today suggests changes to sentences laws for low-level drug cases with the goal of reducing federal prison populations. We will discuss with it former Arizona Attorney General Paul Charlton. Nice to see you.

Paul Charlton: Thank you.

Ted Simons: The idea for lesser sentences for non-violent drug related crimes, your thoughts?

Paul Charlton: What Eric Holder wants to do is reduce the number of people currently incarcerated for the low-level offenses. We have approximately 220,000, people currently in federal prisons, 40% percentage of them for drug related reasons. If you have, for example, five grams of methamphetamine and you're brought into the federal system, you must serve if convicted a minimum of five years in prison. Eric Holder wants to begin to change some of those rules.

Ted Simons: When did that particular mandatory minimum sentencing start, and what has been the impact?

Paul Charlton: From the 80s to the 90s there was a pendulum shift in the way we looked at criminal justice. We wanted to take away the discretion that judges and prosecutors had, and we wanted to force prosecutors and judges to give certain and severe sentences. As a result, we did see a decrease in crime. Now Eric Holder says that cost is about $80 billion too much for the current budget to handle and we need to find a way to be smarter about the federal justice system.

Ted Simons: Too much because of federal crowding?

Paul Charlton: We are at about 40% over our current capacity. It's costing too much and he believes this is one way to reduce the costs and reduce the number of people currently in prison.

Ted Simons: Over half of these people are in federal prison. Is it low-level drug offenses or drug offenses in general?

Paul Charlton: 47% of any kind. Eric Holder wants to find those low-level, nonviolent, not associated with larger criminal gangs and give those individuals the opportunity to receive a sentence less than a mandatory minimum might be.

Ted Simons: How do you figure out these people are supposed to be worth taking the risk? How do you keep them from becoming high-risk second and third offenders?

Paul Charlton: 40% of all offenders released from the federal system reoffend. How do you determine those 40% will not reoffend? If we're picking nonviolent offenders, low-level individuals that they are less likely to reoffend.

Ted Simons: Okay. Is there indication that that is the case? Have we seen studies? Seems like I've heard about studies that showed a lot of times these lower level drug cases, these folks do wind up leading to other problems.

Paul Charlton: A number of people will tell you there is a direct correlation between the number of people in prison and the reduction in the rate of crime. If we let more people out of prison or give them a lower sentence, there is a risk we might see again an increase in the crime rate. The trick is to find a way to release people who won't reoffend, and that is going to be the difficult challenge here.

Ted Simons: Has criminal justice research and studies, have they changed over the decades to where it might be a little easier to say, A, and B, if they are released and put into a treatment program, how much of a factor that is?

Paul Charlton: There are different states that have acted as the laboratory for our democracy. They have had some success in that regard. Texas is one of those states that Eric Holder pointed to today, a state that we, the federal government, should be looking at to determine whether or not releasing individuals into society, keeping them out of prison for longer periods of time, might reduce costs and still keep the communities safe.

Ted Simons: U.S. Attorneys, are they ready for this?

Paul Charlton: I think U.S. Attorneys will largely embrace the opportunity to exercise greater discretion on their own. Any federal or local prosecutors, or any U.S. Attorney, they will say I would like to make the decision myself about whom to charge and what charges to bring. The risk there, Ted, you may see discrepancies between the kinds of charges brought for example on a marijuana case in Tucson and the kinds of charges brought on a marijuana case in Buffalo, New York. Different communities will require different sentences and they will see different charges. That discrepancy is sometimes difficult for people to accept.

Ted Simons: And we're emphasizing, this is the federal prison population, these are federal drug laws as opposed to state laws, correct?

Paul Charlton: Federal prison population is only about 13% of the overall population of prisoners in the United States. So this is a small impact on a small percentage of prisoners. But the Department of Justice has oftentimes taken a leadership role in making these decisions.

Ted Simons: Is the country ready for this? We've discussed, had debates on this program before, and there was a movement in the state legislature to lessen drug sentencing laws, and it didn't get too far. Is the country ready for this, the idea that we can look at different ways to treat people who are only incarcerated for low-level drug crimes?

Paul Charlton: Soft on crime has never been a winning motto for politicians. But there is this. In the Senate right now senator Paul from Kentucky, and Senator Leahy, the senator from Vermont, and others are working on giving judges greater discretion on charges. So there does seem to be an increased appetite among our political leaders on both sides of the aisle for reduced sentences.

Ted Simons: How much will that appetite be impacted by the private prison industry? I would imagine they are looking at this and saying, hey, let's get active here, let's start moving.

Paul Charlton: I don't think there's a bill passed in Congress that doesn't see its share of lobbyists. You're identifying one very much involved in the criminal justice system.

Ted Simons: Incarceration should punish, deter and rehabilitate, not merely convict, warehouse and forget.

Paul Charlton: There are many people, as an old prosecutor, I would say that applies to. There are those it ought not to apply to. There are certain individuals I would be happy to put into prison and forget about, and I'm sure the surviving family members agree, as well. We do need to find a way to reduce costs but keep the community safe. Whether or not Eric Holder has found that correct balance, only time will tell.

Ted Simons: The other thing is we can't incarcerate and prosecute our way to a safer nation. Some would say we already have.

Paul Charlton: It is a safer nation than it was in the 70s. Crime rates are down. Whether it's because we have been prosecuting our way or not, the sociologists will have to tell you.

Ted Simons: Good to see you.

Paul Charlton: Good to see you, Ted.

Paul Charlton:Former U.S. Attorney, Arizona;

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