Holder expected to back lower sentences for drug possession crimes

Holder expected to back lower sentences for drug possession crimes
U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder is to call for reduced drug sentences during a hearing Thursday. (Kris Connor / Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. is to endorse a proposal to reduce future drug sentences by an average of 11 months during a hearing by the U.S. Sentencing Commission on Thursday.

Overly-tough drug sentences result in "too many Americans going to prison for far too long, and at times for no truly good public safety reason," Holder said in prepared remarks released by the Justice Department.

There are more than 216,000 inmates in federal prisons alone, Holder said, nearly half of them serving time for drug-related crimes.

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

The sentencing commission, a group of judges and lawyers appointed by the president to set sentencing guidelines for federal judges, proposed changes in January that would affect 70% of all drug traffickers.

Conviction of possession of 100 grams of heroin or 500 grams of powder cocaine, which would currently draw a sentence of 63 to 78 months, would instead be eligible for sentences of 51 to 63 months.

The commission is not expected to vote on the changes until at least April. But Holder, who since August has been pushing for a new approach to drug crimes, will urge prosecutors not to oppose using the lower sentencing range in the meantime, according to a Justice Department official who would not allow his name to be used.