U.S. Attorney General Pushes Federal Prison Changes That Would Affect NC Taxpayers

9:46 AM, Aug 13, 2013   |    comments
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North Carolina -- U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has outlined a plan to get rid of mandatory minimum sentencing policies that have kept non-violent drug offenders in prison for long periods of time and cost the country billions of dollars in taxpayer money to incarcerate them.

The plan, which he outlined to the American Bar Association Monday, would affect North Carolina's federal prisons-which, like many in the rest of the country, are overcrowded.  The plan would get rid of mandatory minimum sentences that federal judges must give to offenders of certain drug crimes.  These sentences have been in place since the U.S. cracked down on drug crimes in the 1980s.

Judges would then be able to issue the punishment they deem appropriate, thereby allowing for non-violent inmates who are not associated with drug cartels or gangs to avoid long, mandatory terms.  Ill or elderly inmates also could get early releases.  

Holder argues the federal prison population has grown to 40 percent over capacity and has nearly 220,000 inmates.  He said about 25% of the justice department's budget goes to fund prison-related operations.  Forsyth County District Judge Denise Hartsfield said Holder's proposal is a good one-but she has one concern.

She said, "What bothers me, if there is a bother, is that these people have to re-enter into society, and I think that's one of the things we have not done well in our society-the re-entry piece.  People talk about incarceration, they talk about locking people up, being hard on crime, but no one's talking about the re-entry piece."

Though Judge Hartsfield is a district judge, she has worked as a clerk for a federal judge and has first-hand knowledge of the federal justice system.  She said the state needs more probation officers and programs that will help these non-violent federal inmates get jobs when they are released.

Hartsfield said she does support giving more discretion to judges, if judges fairly evaluate the nature of each crime.

Holder said his next step is to meet with a bipartisan group in Congress next month to figure out, logistically, how to give federal judges such discretion in issuing drug-related sentences or giving early release to ill or elderly inmates.  Currently, the proposal has bipartisan support in Congress.

News 2 asked viewers on Facebook what they think of Holder's proposal.  Michael Cassell said he does support it "because caging these people for minor offenses is just a waste of money."  Ray Kazakweich said, "Just because incarceration costs money doesn't mean we should stop incarcerating criminals.  Just because a criminal is sick or old and no longer a danger to society doesn't excuse them from paying the price for their crimes."

Join in on the conversation on the WFMY News 2 Facebook page.