The Justice Department plans to change how it prosecutes some non-violent drug offenders, so they would no longer face mandatory minimum prison sentences, in an overhaul of federal prison policy that Attorney General Eric Holder will unveil on Monday.
Holder will outline the status of a broad, ongoing project intended to improve Justice Department sentencing policies across the country in a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco.
"I have mandated a modification of the Justice Department's charging policies so that certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels, will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences," Holder is expected to say, according to excerpts of his prepared remarks provided by the Justice Department.
The United States imprisons a higher percentage of its population than other large countries, largely because of anti-drug laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s.
Holder will also reveal a plan to create a slate of local guidelines to determine if cases should be subject to federal charges.
The attorney general will point to the bipartisan backing of such goals in Congress, where there is "legislation aimed at giving federal judges more discretion in applying mandatory minimums to certain drug offenders."
Conservative groups with leaders including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have called for changing U.S. crime and prison policies, Justice Department officials note. Support from conservatives has come in part because of the enormous bite that prison costs take out of state budgets.
The bipartisan backing could be important because the Obama administration will need Republican support for any major changes in Congress.
More recently, as crime rates have dropped sharply in most major urban areas, public demand for lengthy prison terms has waned, and both liberal and conservative states have changed their laws to incarcerate fewer people
Congress has moved more slowly than state legislatures. But conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats have both called for pulling back on the use of mandatory minimum prison terms
In his speech, Holder plans to cite proposals by Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), two of the Senate's leading liberals, and Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), two tea party favorites, that would give judges more leeway in sentencing drug offenders.
"By reserving the most severe penalties for serious, high-level or violent drug traffickers, we can better promote public safety, deterrence and rehabilitation, while making our expenditures smarter and more productive," Holder says in his speech
Holder is expected to say that laws like these could save the United States billions of dollars.
The attorney general will also announce an updated plan for considering release for "inmates facing extraordinary or compelling circumstances - and who pose no threat to the public."Reuters and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report