Yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a proposal designed to lighten the heavy-handed law enforcement tactics resulting from the failed war on drugs. Before the U.S. Sentencing Commission, Holder said he wanted to reform drug sentencing.

Holder proposed lowering drug sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, citing overcrowded prisons and the expense required to fund the current system designed for drug offenders. Since the beginning of the “War on Drugs” 40 years ago, taxpayers have wasted $1 trillion on law enforcement, judicial proceedings, and incarceration for drug offenders. However, the flow of illegal drugs into the country remains strong.

“This overreliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable, it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate,” said Holder.

The “human and moral costs” that Holder referred to were the instances where minor and nonviolent drug offenders serve near-life sentences. Comparably, these types of offenders typically serve longer jail sentences than murderers, rapists, and other violent criminals. The number of inmates jailed for drug offenses remains around 50 percent. As of 2000, the population of drug offenders in lockup had increased from 74,276 to 97,472 over 10 years.

Holder’s proposal would affect 70 of drug cases brought by federal prosecutors and is expected to decrease the prison population by three percent over five years, about 6,550 inmates. It would also reduce the amount of prison time for drug traffickers by 11 months. The proposal doesn’t affect all drug offenders, however. Holder still believes that “dangerous and violent drug traffickers” should receive the harshest penalties.  

Current mandatory minimum sentencing dictates that drug offenders convicted of cocaine possession exceeding 500 grams must serve 63-78 months in prison. The proposal reduces those terms to 51-63 months.

“By reserving the most severe penalties for dangerous and violent drug traffickers, we can better protect public safety, deterrence and rehabilitation while saving billions of dollars and strengthening communities,” said Holder.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the United States has only five percent of the world’s population, yet incarcerates one-fourth of the world’s prisoners. There is a large racial disparity among drug offenders, as well. The ACLU also found that blacks are four-times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites, despite comparable rates of use.

Holder’s proposal is an extension of a statement he made last August in which he called for an overhaul of the country’s drug criminal system. Among the items in that announcement last year, he mentioned that he would be seeking a decrease in mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders. The U.S. Sentencing Commission will on the proposal closer to May of this year. Good job this time, Holder.

Josh is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. Follow him on Twitter @dnJdeli.