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Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, Feb. 17, 2015.
Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, Feb. 17, 2015. (Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press)

Federal prosecutors brought fewer cases against drug offenders in 2014 and pursued mandatory-minimum sentences far less often, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Tuesday, citing signs of progress in his effort to reform drug sentencing and ease prison overcrowding.

"For years prior to this administration, federal prosecutors were not only encouraged but required to always seek the most severe prison sentence possible for all drug cases, no matter the relative risk they posed to public safety," Holder said during an appearance at the National Press Club in Washington. "I have made a break from that philosophy."

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In a sharp departure from the zero-tolerance approach adopted by prosecutors 25 years ago that sent drug offenders large and small to long prison sentences without parole, Holder said federal prosecutors now concentrate on larger drug conspiracies

The result was a 6.3 percent drop in federal drug prosecutions nationwide last year. The number of cases in which prosecutors pursued charges that carried mandatory minimum sentences fell 24.3 percent — "the steepest drop ever," Holder said.

"While old habits are hard to break, these numbers show that a dramatic shift is underway in the mindset of prosecutors handling nonviolent drug offenses," Holder said. "I believe we have taken steps to institutionalize this fairer, more practical approach, such that it will endure for years to come."

The Justice Department did not release state-by-state numbers. James Wyda, the head of the federal public defender's office in Maryland, said he has seen little change in the tactics of federal prosecutors, who he said still seek harsh penalties for drug crimes.

"There seems to be a great deal of reluctance on the part of the U.S. attorney's office to give up the control over sentencing that mandatory minimums give them," Wyda said.

The U.S. attorney's office in Maryland did not respond to a request for comment.

Holder plans to step down when the Senate confirms a successor. President Barack Obama has nominated Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York.

As the nation's top law enforcement official, the attorney general wields unique influence. But the actual number of cases prosecuted by the federal government — about 860 Maryland in 2013 — is dwarfed by those brought by local authorities. Police made almost 49,000 drug arrests in Maryland alone that year.

The figures Holder released Tuesday capture one element of a broader effort by the Justice Department and the federal judiciary to soften the effects of drug convictions.

Holder told Congress in 2013 that changes were needed to ease prison crowding and to avoid sending low-level or first-time defendants off to long prison terms in cases not involving violence.

Holder asked the U.S. Sentencing Commission to compile data for 2014, the first full year since the program was begun.

While the number of drug prosecutions fell, the commission found, the "severity" of the cases the government prosecuted went up. Minimum guideline sentences rose from 96 months in prison in 2013 to 98 months in 2014.

"Combined," Holder said, "this means that we prosecuted cases more smartly last year, doing fewer cases overall, but doing more serious crimes."

Holder acknowledged that several factors might have contributed to the drop in drug prosecutions; the number also fell the year before he launched his Smart on Crime plan. But he said the decline in the number of cases in which prosecutors pursued mandatory minimum sentences was a direct result of the new policy.

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The Justice Department has also supported moves to help drug dealers who are already imprisoned to get their sentences reduced. Wyda said those initiatives have had a significant effect in Maryland, where a combination of measures have led judges to shave a total of 1,000 years off prison terms.

Wyda said there is no indication that the reduced sentences have led to more crime. Holder underscored that point Tuesday.

Overall crime has declined during the Obama administration, and Holder said it was the first time in more than 40 years that crime has fallen at the same time as the prison population has declined.

"All of this progress is remarkable, and all of it is noteworthy," he said.

The Brennan Center for Justice reported last week that locking up more people has had only a "limited impact" on the national crime rate.

The center said increased incarceration brought the crime rate down by a small margin in the 1990s, but after 2000 had a "negligible effect on crime."

The center found an increase in police officers and an aging population have had a greater impact on crime rates, and noted that several states have brought down both prison population and crime.

"This report amplifies what many on the left and the right have come to realize in recent years — mass incarceration is not working. It simply isn't necessary to reduce crime," said Inimai Chettiar, director of the center's Justice Program.

The center said Maryland was one of the few states that have seen both significant declines in incarceration rates and crime levels. But it described the state's efforts to change its criminal justice policies as "slow."

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