In a proposal that could have a far-reaching impact on the Black community, Attorney General Eric Holder is urging the U.S. Sentencing Commission to cut the sentences of as many as 20,000 federal prisoners serving time for nonviolent drug offenses.
It is Holder’s latest move to reform the sentencing guidelines that he has said disproportionately affect African-American males.
The Justice Department appealed Tuesday to the U.S. Sentencing Commission to make some prisoners retroactively eligible for reduced sentences. The commission has already approved a measure to reduce drug sentences for future nonviolent offenders. This would apply to offenders already in federal prison — affecting an estimated 9 percent of the 217,000 federal prisoners. The pitch was made by Sally Yates, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, and Charles Samuels, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
“Not everyone in prison for a drug-related offense would be eligible,” Holder said Tuesday. “Nor would everyone who is eligible be guaranteed a reduced sentence. But this proposal strikes the best balance between protecting public safety and addressing the overcrowding of our prison system that has been exacerbated by unnecessarily long sentences.”
“We believe that the federal drug sentencing structure in place before the amendment resulted in unnecessarily long sentences for some offenders and that has resulted in significant prison overcrowding,” Yates said in prepared remarks for the hearing.
In other Justice Department news, a bipartisan group of 21 senators sent a letter to Holder asking for the department to investigate the Veterans Affairs scandal.
Authored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the letter follows an internal audit by the VA released Monday showing more than 57,000 veterans had been waiting for up to three months for a medical appointment, and that an additional 64,000 who enrolled in the agency’s health care over the past decade may have never been seen by a doctor. This audit came on the heels of an interim inspector general report from the Phoenix VA facility finding that 1,700 veterans were waiting for a primary care appointment but not found on any waiting list. The Phoenix facility is the one that initially made news when it was reported that up to 40 veterans died waiting for care.
“Evidence of secret waiting times, falsification of records, destruction of documents, and other potential criminal wrongdoing has appalled and angered the nation, and imperiled trust and confidence in the Veterans Health Administration,” the senators said in the letter. “While we commend and appreciate the IG’s pursuit of his inquiry, an effective and prompt criminal investigation must inevitably involve the resources of the Department of Justice, including the FBI.”