U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says the Justice Department is planning steps to reduce the number of non-violent drug offenders who face long mandatory prison terms.
U.S. laws dating from the 1980s require long jail terms for anyone convicted of certain drug crimes. But in a speech Monday to the American Bar Association in San Francisco, Holder said he has ordered prosecutors to make sure that minor offenders are not charged with crimes that carry sentences appropriate for drug kingpins.
Holder said the current system traps too many Americans in a cycle of poverty and incarceration. He said minor offenders should be charged with crimes carrying sentences "better suited to their individual conduct."
Holder said the United States should remain strict, but be smarter about tackling crime.
Mandatory minimum sentences have drawn criticism for their lack of flexibility, which critics say puts too many people in prison for too long. The mandatory sentences grew out of anti-drug legislation in the 1980s.
Holder says there is bipartisan backing for reform in Congress, where members are considering "legislation aimed at giving federal judges more discretion in applying mandatory minimums to certain drug offenders.''
He also said he is devising an updated plan that could lead to release for "inmates facing extraordinary or compelling circumstances - and who pose no threat to the public.''
In addition to altering the guidelines for sentences leading to prison, Holder says he is encouraging alternatives to jail, including drug treatment and community service.
The attorney general says the reforms will save the United States billions of dollars.
Federal prisons hold more than 219,000 inmates, of whom 47 percent are serving time for drug offenses.