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US unveils plans to cut prison sentences for drug offences

The United States has unveiled plans to shake up the nation's criminal justice system by cutting its use of tough mandatory prison sentences for drug offenses. The plans are intended to tackle prison overcrowding.

The Obama administration aims to take steps to fix what it considers the longstanding unjust treatment of many non-violent drug offenders by cutting the use of mandatory prison sentences, Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday.

In a speech to the American Bar Association, Holder described minimal jail terms as "counterproductive," calling instead for drug treatment and community service programs for low-level offenses.

"Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason," the top US law enforcement official said.

"We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate - not merely to convict, warehouse and forget."

"Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem, rather than alleviate it," Holder added.

Under the plans unveiled by Holder judges will be able to exercise their discretion in order to impose shorter sentences or community service orders on low-level, non-violent drug offenders with no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels.

Prison system strain

Critics of the current drug sentencing laws have long referenced the effect they have on America's black community. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 47 percent of inmates are there for drug offenses. By race, 37 percent of all inmates are black, and, by ethnicity, 34 percent are Hispanic. The US Census Bureau says 13 percent of Americans are black and 16 percent are Hispanic.

Overcrowding has become a major issue in federal prisons in the US, which are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity. Holder noted in his speech that while the total US population had increased by a third since 1980, the prison population had risen by around 800 percent. Moreover, the US houses almost a quarter of the total number of people imprisoned worldwide, but account for just five percent of the world population.

The financial implications of prison overcrowding are also justification for reform, Holder said. Inmates in local, state and federal prisons cost the government around $80 billion dollars in 2010 alone, according the attorney general.

Other proposals put forward on Monday include the early release of elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes and have served significant portions of their sentences.

Several of the reforms unveiled require congressional approval. In the meantime, Holder has mandated a modification of the Justice Department's charging policies.

Monday's speech was met with widespread bipartisan support in Congress. Alongside Democrats, it was welcomed by Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a possible presidential candidate in 2016, and Senator Mike Lee of Utah.

ccp/rc (AFP, Reuters, AP)