A Justice Department policy shift concerning mandatory minimum prison penalties is getting mixed reviews locally.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said the government's proposal to reduce the number of nonviolent drug offenders who are sent to federal prison "aims at a worthy goal yet misses the mark by sidestepping Congress."
Under the new policy outlined by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday, federal prosecutors will be prohibited from identifying a specific quantity of drugs when drafting indictments against certain low-level drug offenders to avoid triggering mandatory federal sentences that could otherwise send these offenders to prison.
On Thursday, the sentencing commission set as its top priority continuing to work with Congress to change federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines.
"While it is certainly possible to focus laws and sentences on the most violent and repeat offenders as we have proven in Arizona, this should be a cooperative effort between the executive and legislative branches of government," Montgomery said. "Instead, by ordering prosecutors to ignore evidence, the approach outlined by Mr. Holder is yet another unfortunate example of the Obama administration undermining the rule of law."
The seven-member commission wants Congress to reduce the severity and scope of mandatory minimum penalties and consider expanding a law that exempts certain low-level nonviolent offenders from mandatory minimum prison terms.
U.S. Attorney John S. Leonardo said he fully supports the new shift.
"It will allow us to save millions of dollars unnecessarily spent to incarcerate non-violent, low level drug offenders in overcrowded prisons and redirect those resources to the prosecution and imprisonment of high level, serious drug offenders with violent criminal histories who pose a real danger to the community," Leonardo said. "This is a common sense, positive reform that provides federal prosecutors and the courts with the discretion and the opportunity to better achieve justice while reducing costs and continuing to maintain public safety."
The sentencing commission establishes sentencing policies and practices for the federal courts.
Long mandatory prison terms that apply to low-level drug offenders are a legacy of the government's war on drugs in the 1980s.
Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation) contributed to this report.