WASHINGTON -- Emboldened by support from a growing number of federal judges, Attorney General Janet Reno has begun to take the first steps toward reversing the policy of meting out tough criminal sentences for minor drug offenses.
In recent days, she has told some groups that she will soon order a review of the federal sentencing guidelines with an eye toward eliminating the long mandatory sentences for low-level drug crimes, like possession of small amounts of narcotics. She is expected to discuss the review on Friday at a conference on national drug strategy attended by officials from the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations.
Justice Department officials said yesterday that the review probably would lead to changes in the way prosecutors prepare cases and charge defendants in such cases. It also might lead to a proposal by the department to include provisions to ease sentencing laws in the criminal bill that Congress is expected to consider this year.
"This is something that's very important to her, and there's a momentum building to make changes," said Carl Stern, a spokesman for Ms. Reno. "Her feeling is that it's crazy that a convicted killer can be kicked out of prison to make room for a drug mule who may have moved a small amount of some drug but has a family and poses no risk to anybody."
The review has not begun and is expected to take several months. Ms. Reno is the only official at the department to be confirmed by the Senate, and no one has been named to head its criminal division.
But department officials said yesterday that it was a good time for Ms. Reno to begin a campaign to change the sentencing rules, because of the growing sentiment among federal judges that the rules are too inflexible and harsh. She is also basking in a new-found popularity on Capitol Hill over her handling of the aftermath of the cult standoff near Waco, Texas.
Judge Harold H. Greene of Federal District Court in Washington declared the guidelines unconstitutional Thursday. The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the guidelines previously, but Judge Greene said his ruling was based on different grounds. The Justice Department has not decided whether it will appeal Judge Greene's ruling.
In his decision, the judge refused to impose a mandatory 30-year sentence for possession of less than a quarter of an ounce of heroin and cocaine and noted that the defendant, Cordell Spencer, had faced a more severe sentence than many drug "kingpins."
The decision came two weeks after two federal judges in New York, Whitman Knapp of Manhattan and Jack B. Weinstein of Brooklyn, said they would no longer hear narcotics cases because of their frustration over the severity of the rules.
The federal public defender for Maryland hailed Ms. Reno's move yesterday.
"I have real hope for the first time since I've been in this business that there will be a rollback of mandatory drug penalties," said James K. Bredar, the federal public defender.
Federal judges, including those in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, frequently have criticized mandatory sentences and strict guidelines that have resulted in long prison terms for drug offenders. The two devices have led to an explosion in the federal prison population.
Civil liberties groups and criminal-defense organizations have long argued against the expanded use of mandatory sentences during the Bush and Reagan administrations. But any easing of the rules has been viewed with skepticism by most members of Congress, many of whom fear they would appear too lenient if they voted to reduce the punishment for criminal offenders.