Changes announced to federal drug enforcement policy

Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder reported that the Department of Justice will alter how certain drug crimes are handled across the country. As many have questioned the effectiveness of the "War on Drugs," the new "Smart on Crime" policy is meant to reduce the number of non-violent individuals who are incarcerated for lengthy prison sentences.

Holder announced that prosecutors across the country will now be advised to tailor drug charges for non-violent individuals who are arrested for low-level drug crimes. To avoid long mandatory minimum sentences, prosecutors may follow these guidelines by leaving out the quantity of the substance found on the individual when filing criminal charges.

In many cases, mandatory minimum sentences have led to those charged with small offenses being incarcerated for long periods of time. In large part due to these long prison sentences, the United States now incarcerates a larger percentage of the population than any other country in the world, based on data from the International Centre for Prison Studies.

According to Holder, the United States accounts for approximately 25 percent of the prisoners in the world, while we make up only 5 percent of the total world population. In addition, approximately 50 percent of America's prisoners are in jail as a result of a drug crime conviction.

The high percentage of prisoners in the U.S. has resulted in both overcrowding and soaring costs for maintaining prisons. Currently, Holder reported that the federal prisons in the United States are over-capacity by around 40 percent. In 2010, it cost approximately $80 billion to fund prisons across the country.

Holder's guidelines also suggest letting certain prisoners out of jail - specifically, non-violent prisoners who are either elderly or are suffering from a serious medical condition. In such cases, incarcerated individuals would only be considered for release if they had already served a large part of their sentence.

Marijuana crimes will also be handled differently

In addition to these major reforms, Holder later announced a change in policy in regards to how marijuana crimes are enforced. While states have taken action to decriminalize marijuana, many have wondered how such laws will be handled federally.

Holder announced that federal prosecutors will be instructed to focus on eight main areas when it comes to marijuana enforcement in the U.S. Among those who will still be pursued by federal prosecutors include those who sell marijuana to minors and those involved in gangs and drug cartels.

Of course, these changes to federal policy do not mean individuals will no longer face marijuana charges in Massachusetts. Those found in possession of marijuana may still face charges under Massachusetts law. For instance, an individual found in possession of more than one ounce of marijuana, who has no prior offenses, could be sentenced to up to six months in jail and receive a fine of up to $500.

If you have been charged with a drug crime, seeking the advice of an experienced criminal defense attorney will ensure a strong defense is established on your behalf.