National Press Club

Attorney General Holder says federal prosecutors file fewer drug charges, pursue more serious offenders

February 17, 2015 | By Lawrence Feinberg |

Attorney General Eric Holder touted the reduction in charges for non-violent drug offenses that have allowed federal prosectors to focus on more serious offenders, during a Feb. 17 National Press Club luncheon speech.

Attorney General Eric Holder touted the reduction in charges for non-violent drug offenses that have allowed federal prosectors to focus on more serious offenders, during a Feb. 17 National Press Club luncheon speech.

Photo/Image: Marshall H. Cohen

The number of persons charged with federal drug trafficking offenses dropped last year by 6 percent as part of a Justice Department effort to focus on serious offenders and reduce "unnecessary incarceration," Attorney General Eric Holder said at a National Press Club luncheon on Feb. 17.

Meanwhile, the federal prison population declined by about 4,800, while the overall national crime rate continued to fall.

Holder said fiscal 2014, which ended Sept. 30, was the first time "in more than 40 years...[with] side-by-side reductions in both crime and incarceration."

The declines in both drug charges and the prison population were a result of the "Smart on Crime" initiative he launched in August 2013, Holder said.

Under the policy, federal prosecutors were instructed not to charge low-level nonviolent drug offenders with crimes that carry lengthy mandatory prison sentences. Drug convictions account for about 45 percent of the 215,000 federal prisoners.

Just over half of federally-charged drug trafficking offenses carried a mandatory minimum sentence in 2014 compared to about two-thirds in 2013, Holder said. The average minimums of those charged rose by two months, indicating a focus on severe offenders.

"For years...federal prosecutors were not only encouraged – but required – to always seek the most severe prison sentence possible for all drug cases, no matter what the relative risk to public safety," Holder said. "While old habits are hard to break, these numbers show that a dramatic shift is underway in the mindset of prosecutors handling nonviolent drug offenses. I believe we have taken steps to institutionalize this fairer, more practical approach such that it will endure for years to come."

Holder has announced he will leave office after the Senate confirms his successor. President Barack Obama’s nominee for the post, Loretta Lynch, is expected to be confirmed in early March.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and other critics have charged that Holder's policy has made it more difficult to get offenders to testify against higher-level drug dealers, but the attorney general said the rate of guilty pleas under plea-bargain agreements ticked up slightly last year to 97.5 percent.

In response to questions from the Club audience:

  • Holder said the Feb. 16 federal district court ruling against Obama’s executive order allowing many illegal immigrants to remain in the United States was just an "interim step." He said he expected the issue to be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Holder repeated his opposition to the death penalty and called for a national moratorium on executions until the Supreme Court decides on the constitutionality of lethal injections.
  • Despite arguments by legalization advocates, Holder said it would be up to Congress, rather than Obama, to remove marijuana from classification as a controlled substance.
  • Holder said he did not favor ending a program to give surplus military equipment to local police but said it should be limited to what is needed "in particular situations." He said it was important for the equipment to be painted and deployed in such a way that it did not appear to be used in a military operation.
  • Holder chided Fox News commentators for having "nothing else to talk about" when they criticize the Obama administration for not using the terms "Islamic extremism" or "radical Islam" in describing recent terrorist violence. The terminology has "little or no impact on what ultimately we have to do," Holder said. He said he was most concerned about "self-radicalized" young people who never leave the United States but do not feel integrated into society.
  • Holder said he has given U.S. attorneys a 90-day deadline to determine whether they can develop criminal or civil cases against individuals in connection the financial collapse of 2008-2009. So far, only banks and other financial institutions have been charged with wrongdoing.
  • When asked to compare his basketball skills with Obama's, Holder noted he comes from New York City, which has produced basketball greats, while Obama grew up in Hawaii.

    "I’m just saying from his background, he’s a good ballplayer," Holder continued. "He’s got a real good left hand. He has the ability to drive. He's 10 years younger than I am. He's in better shape. And he’s still my boss."

The audience laughed.