U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder arrives to speak at the Justice Department on June 18, 2013.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder arrives to speak at the Justice Department on June 18, 2013. - 
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Attorney General Eric Holder wants an overhaul of mandatory minimum drug sentences, the policy that has led to severely overcrowded federal prisons at great expense to taxpayers. He outlined his take in an address to the American Bar Association at its annual meeting in San Francisco Monday. The speech comes at a moment when national politicians in both parties are rethinking mandatory sentencing, and states are experimenting with alternative punishment for some nonviolent drug offenders.

Right now, convictions on certain charges carry automatic prison sentences. Sometimes that means nonviolent, first-time offenders going to jail for far longer than judges think they should. America spends a tremendous amount of money locking them down. Holder threw out some big and optimistic numbers when he talked about potential savings from rolling back mandatory minimums. “Such legislation will ultimately save our country billions of dollars while keeping us more safe,” Holder told the audience of lawyers.

But to get anywhere near billions, he needs Congress. Without new laws, Holder can’t do much more than what he announced today. He’s ordering the Justice Department to change how it charges certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. Preventing them from serving mandatory minimums will save money, but not billions anytime soon.

Urban Institute senior fellow John Roman’s rough estimate is that today’s move could save “up to $700 million over 10 years.” Any estimate about savings related to easing or repealing mandatory sentencing will of course depend on how judges rule on a myriad of different cases. The only hope of getting billions in savings would be new laws handing sentencing judgment back to judges. A bill to do just that is the joint project of Senators Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Growing bipartisan distaste for mandatory minimums is what makes it possible for a liberal lion to join hands with a 2016 GOP presidential hopeful on legislation. Liberals critical of the policy’s disproportionate impact on minorities now find themselves side by side with conservatives upset with the growing size of the federal prison system. And conservatives are in the unusual position of cheering an Obama administration policy move.

“I’m excited,” says Marc Levin, policy director at Right on Crime, a conservative group that says prison spending is out of control. “The announcement today by the Attorney General will hopefully add momentum to what many policymakers, including many conservatives, are already advocating.”

In the drug wars of decades ago, politicians in both parties pushed mandatory minimums. It was an easy way to appear tough on crime. Prisons filled up and taxpayers paid hefty bills. Now, many states have moved away from mandatory sentences. Local leaders say they’ve gotten better public safety results through cheaper options like special drug courts, enhanced probation and addiction counseling. Holder’s move Monday is an early step in the federal system’s attempt to do what it believes will lead to reduced crime and reduced cost.

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Follow Mark Garrison at @GarrisonMark