Buell cited the Eastern District of New York as an example, where prosecutors often confront low-level drug mules at John F. Kennedy International Airport. These smugglers, often women with children who were persuaded in their home countries to smuggle the drugs, usually arent prosecuted under the maximum penalty if they dont have criminal records, he said.
"Its something thats been going on in U.S. attorneys offices with heavy drug dockets for a number of years, its just been under the radar," Buell said. "What Holder is doing is to expand that to some less-populous jurisdictions where they might not have that perspective on the relative seriousness of the crime.
More than 200 mandatory minimum sentences apply to federal crimes, many of them involving drugs. Possession of 100 plants or 100 kilograms 220 pounds of marijuana, for instance, subjects a defendant to a federal mandatory minimum sentence of five years, as does possession of 28 grams 0.1 ounce of crack cocaine.
Congress has consistently been more likely to approve new mandatory minimum sentencing laws during election years, according to a study by the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
Judges already have some discretion to apply a so-called safety valve, allowing certain nonviolent first offenders to be sentenced more leniently than the mandatory minimums.
A Senate bill co-authored by Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky would expand this sentencing safety valve to cover more defendants; the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing in September on the bill, one of several introduced during this Congress to overhaul mandatory minimums.
The administrations involvement in this bipartisan issue is a welcome development, Paul said Monday. Now the hard work begins to change the law to permanently address this injustice.
Holder also announced expanded opportunities for early release of those he described as elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes and who have served significant portions of their sentences. About 124,000 state and federal prisoners are 55 or older.
Lesley Clark contributed to this report.