Judges to get more leeway in drug cases

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 11, 2014 - 6:13 AM

A new approach means low-level offenders are less likely to face “mandatory minimum” sentences.

Attorney General Eric Holder.
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U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

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Some nonviolent drug offenders in Minnesota are poised to catch a break from a significant change in the way the nation handles drug crimes.

Responding to a call for reform by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, new Minnesota U.S. Attorney Andy Luger has instructed the assistant attorneys in his office to examine all of their incoming drug cases. The result likely will be that fewer defendants will face the long “mandatory minimum” terms that are clogging federal prisons with nonviolent offenders.

“This new approach gives us the ability to look at each individual drug case and make a charging decision that we believe is in the interest of justice,” Luger said. “It leads to very healthy discussion among prosecutors about what justice requires.”

Defense attorneys welcome the change. Katherian Roe, chief federal public defender in Minnesota, said the new policy will put more sentencing decisions in the hands of the judge “where it is supposed to be in the first place.” She called it “a great development.”

For years, federal prosecutors have charged most drug offenders under a law that carried a mandatory minimum of five or 10 years in federal prison, regardless of their role in a drug crime. Low-level couriers were frequently treated like violent members of cartels. The office has charged about 200 people with drug crimes in 2012 and 2013.

Now prosecutors have been told to determine if a defendant should be charged under different laws that allow a judge to impose a lighter sentence.

The policy change is driven by Holder, who said last August that mandatory minimum terms “have resulted in unduly harsh sentences and perceived or actual disparities.”

He said long sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug crimes don’t promote public safety, deterrence or rehabilitation.

“Moreover, rising prison costs have resulted in reduced spending on criminal justice initiatives, including spending on law enforcement agents, prosecutors and prevention and intervention programs.”

Support ‘in principle’

One law enforcement advocate applauds the change.

State Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said he supported “in principle” the new federal approach. “The public wants sex offenders and murderers locked up,” he said, with more attention paid to prevention and education for low-level drug offenders.

However, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said he hopes the “totality” of a defendant’s criminal record, including previous acts of violence, will be considered by federal prosecutors even if their latest offense is nonviolent.

“It speaks to their character, their propensity for criminal violence,” he said.

Luger said the importance of the Smart on Crime initiative, as the Justice Department calls it, was underscored at a March conference in Washington, D.C., of all U.S. attorneys. In addition to hearing speeches by Holder and Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, attorneys went to the White House where they were addressed by President Obama, Luger said.

“He said he wanted us to know how important this Smart on Crime initiative was to him,” Luger said.

What’s the difference?

Luger declined to say how many times his office has issued charges without the mandatory minimums. None of the cases has reached the sentencing stage, so it would be inappropriate to comment on them, he said.

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Attorney General Eric Holder.