U.S. President Barack Obama (R) walks past US Attorney General Eric Holder (L) during an event in the East Room of the White House, on January 22, 2014 in Washington, DC. - 

Today, Attorney General Eric Holder will tell the United States Sentencing Commission, an independent agency that comes up with the guidelines judges use when they sentence convicted criminals, that the average sentence for dealing drugs is too long.

“Eric Holder is signaling that he is drawing down the troops in the war on drugs” - Paul Butler, a law professor at Georgetown University

When it comes to marijuana, the attorney general continues to navigate a changing, challenging landscape. Almost two dozen states have legalized the drug for medicinal use, and recreational use is now legal in Colorado and Washington State. Still, the federal government classifies it as a Schedule I Controlled Substance.

Holder has decided not to stand in the way of state-by-state legalization, and a few weeks ago, the federal government issued new guidance to banks that may want “to provide services to marijuana-related businesses” in states where the drug is legal.

According to Douglas Berman, the Robert J. Watkins/Procter & Gamble Professor of Law at The Ohio State University, economic considerations have motivated Holder to advocate for scaled-back sentencing guidelines. A year of imprisonment in a federal correctional facility costs roughly $30,000 per inmate.

“You multiply that by literally hundreds of thousands of persons serving dozens of years, and it gets to be real money,” Berman says. In FY2013, almost a third of the Justice Department’s $27.1 billion went to the Bureau of Prisons.

“Use those savings to go after the drugs that really are causing the most significant harms to communities” - Douglas Berman, Ohio State University

Incarceration is expensive, but Nora Demleitner, Dean and Roy L. Steinheimer, Jr. Professor of Law at the Washington and Lee University School of Law, says that’s just the beginning.

“It’s not just the cost of imprisonment, it’s also all the subsequent costs.”

It isn’t easy to get a job after serving time in prison. There are stigmas and bans, and Demleitner notes, recidivism rates are high.


In his testimony before the Sentencing Commission, Holder said "straightforward adjustment to sentencing ranges" would send "a strong message about the fairness of our criminal justice system, and it would help to rein in federal prison spending while focusing limited resources on the most serious threats to public safety."

Follow David Gura at @davidgura