U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has made headlines – and perhaps history – with his recent announcement that federal prosecutors must initiate a different approach to pursuing low-level, non-violent drug offenders.
In a speech made to the American Bar Association, Holder said too many people are being incarcerated for periods that are far too long when it isn’t necessary. Not only does this cost taxpayers an enormous amount of money each year, it disproportionately affects minorities – and African Americans in particular – in a way Holder said was “shameful.”
Our Birmingham criminal defense lawyers understand that part of Holder’s strategy to reduce this involves a directive to federal prosecutors to:
Leave out the amount of drugs found in certain arrests, as these details might trigger hefty minimum mandatory sentences, where it may not be in the best interest of justice;
Allow state courts to handle the majority of these low-level cases.
Certainly, the first at least represents a good place to start.
Primarily, Holder said his administration is concerned with curbing long-term sentences for drug offenders who are not connected to any gangs, cartels or larger operations.
However, it’s worth noting that these directives are not retroactive. Those who are already imprisoned on such offenses probably won’t be affected, except if he or she is elderly, in which case Holder urged more compassionate releases for older inmates.
Secondly, these changes probably won’t mean a great deal of change for those accused of drug crimes in Alabama. The reason is because Holder’s directive impacts federal prosecutors, federal courts and federal prisons. But the vast majority of drug cases – particularly those low-level crimes to which he referred – are already handled at the state level.
America has some 2 million people behind bars right now. Of those, only about 1 in 10 are in federal prisons. Of those, about 25 percent are incarcerated for drug crimes, though many of those are there following the imposition of a minimum mandatory term.
The thing about state-level sentences for drug convictions is that they can still be incredibly stiff.
Alabama Code 13A-12-233 holds that a person who engages in criminal enterprise for the purposes of trafficking in illegal drugs shall receive a minimum mandatory sentence of 25 years in prison, with a possible life sentence. That’s for a first-time conviction. A second conviction carries a minimum mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
Even lower-tier offenders are going to face substantial penalties. Per 13A-12-211, any unlawful distribution of a controlled substance of Schedules I through V is considered a Class B felony. This carries a minimum mandatory of two years behind bars, but could mean as many as 20 years.
For the unlawful receipt or possession of a controlled substance, the Alabama legislature holds that a person should be convicted of a Class C misdemeanor, which carries a minimum mandatory of 1 year in prison and up to 10 years of incarceration.
The bottom line is that despite Holder’s directive, this failed War on Drugs is far from over. Anyone accused of a drug crime in Alabama should seek immediate legal counsel.