Attorney General Eric Holder wants his prosecutors to focus less on low-level drug cases and more on violent, gang-related drug crimes.
To hear his top prosecutor in Buffalo talk, that’s been the trend here for several years now.
U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said his office has a track record of already doing what Holder suggested – focusing on drug cases that involve violence, gangs or large-scale criminal organizations.
“We’re talking about the worst of the worst,” Hochul said Tuesday.
Holder, in a speech to the American Bar Association on Monday, called for a series of changes to reduce the federal prison population and eliminate disparities in how white and black defendants are treated by the criminal justice system.
His recommendations range from shorter prison sentences in low-level drug cases to the use of alternative forms of sentencing, such as drug treatment and community service.
Hochul said his office has been concentrating its resources on gang-related drug cases and leaving the prosecution of low-level, nonviolent drug suspects to local district attorneys or the state Attorney General’s Office for more than three years.
“We have simply not been going after those cases,” he said.
Hochul said the results – the prosecution of 12 different gangs and more than 170 defendants – speak for themselves. He said more than 50 of those defendants have been convicted so far.
Buffalo’s federal prosecutor is not the only one who heralded Holder’s reforms. So did U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin.
Curtin, who has never been a fan of the war on drugs, stopped hearing drug cases nearly 20 years ago and at one point described the government’s crackdown on illegal drug use as a complete failure.
“It’s a very, very good idea to look into and give some moderation to sentencing procedures,” he said of Holder’s recommendations.
Curtin views the long sentences associated with drug convictions as one of the primary reasons prisons are unnecessarily overcrowded, and thinks Holder’s reforms may help.
“When you compare us to other industrialized nations, we have a tremendous number of people incarcerated, and that goes for Russia and China, too,” he said.
But there are others, especially in the criminal defense community, who question whether Holder’s recommendations will make a huge difference.
“I’m skeptical of the real impact,” said Rodney O. Personius, a prominent Buffalo defense attorney.
Personius said Holder’s reforms still allow for criminal charges with harsh sentences in low-level drug cases.
In Buffalo, he said, most of those cases involving nonviolent, first-time offenders result in “charge bargaining,” a process that often results in defendants pleading guilty to a less-serious charge.
“It suggests a process,” Personius said of Holder’s recommendations, “that is no different than the process now used, at least in the Western District of New York.”
Herbert L. Greenman, another well-known defense attorney, agrees, but views Holder’s recommendations as a positive first step.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Greenman said. “It’s the beginning of a different period of enlightenment.”
There are still prosecutions, especially those involving marijuana, that end with nonviolent offenders going to prison for excessive periods of time, he said.
And yet, he admits he was “shocked” to hear Holder suggest that federal prosecutors pursue anything less than the maximum sentence allowed by law.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Greenman said of the package of reforms, “but no, it doesn’t go far enough.”
Others pointed to Holder’s recommendation that mandatory minimum prison sentences – a consequence of the war on drugs – be curtailed in low-level, nonviolent drug cases where the suspect has no ties to gangs or organized crime.
“I think his call for reform is historic and long overdue,” said Marianne Mariano, head of the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Buffalo. “I think his reforms will bring common sense and justice to the system.”
Mariano said she also was encouraged by Holder’s recognition of the devastating budgetary impact federal sequestration has had on public defenders and his acknowledgment that Gideon v. Wainwright, the 50-year-old landmark ruling ensuring the right of every criminal defendant to a lawyer, is under attack.
Like Mariano, Hochul welcomed Holder’s reforms, especially his call for alternatives to incarceration, and said his office was the first in the nation to create a Veterans Treatment Court.
The court is a pre-trial diversion program that allows veterans to defer prosecution of their criminal case as long as they adhere to a set of conditions designed to put them back on a path to a productive and law-abiding life.