Attorney General Eric Holder, the nation's top prosecutor, says the U.S. needs to change the way it's dealing with non-violent drug offenders. In Minnesota, the reaction among prosecutors has been mixed.
Holder says mandatory minimum sentences are keeping some people in prison for far too long. He called the criminal justice system broken and unsustainable, and said it's time to reexamine what he referred to as the "so-called" war on drugs.
"Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no truly good law enforcement reason," he said.
Holder said the Obama administration is pursuing new ways of dealing with non-violent offenders. For the time being, he is asking federal prosecutors around the country not to pursue charges that come with mandatory minimum sentences in low-level drug offense cases where there is no connection to large-scale criminal activity.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman agrees with Holder's position.
"I think, and I think many prosecutors believe, that we have too many people in prison overall. I think we have too many low-level drug offenders," Freeman said. "If the whole results of this process of the feds making a change under the leadership of the president and the attorney general results in fewer addicts going to prison, I think we'll all be better off."
Freeman said federal prosecutors in Minnesota are already targeting the highest level crimes instead of trying to go after whatever violations they can.
Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem agrees.
"My experience has been that we work very closely with the United States Attorney and decide you know which of those most egregious cases should go federal prosecution. They certainly don't take everything we've got," Ostrem said.
According to The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform advocacy organization, jail and prison incarceration rates in the United States have exploded, increasing more than 500 percent over the last 30 years. Still, recent Justice Department statistics ranked Minnesota's incarceration rate the second lowest in the country.
But Mark Haase of the Council on Crime and Justice in Minneapolis says Minnesota's incarceration rate is misleading especially as it relates to the war on drugs. As the federal government rethinks drugs and prison, Haase says so too should officials in Minnesota.
"We have some of the harshest and longest drug sentences in the country," he said. "Now what we do is a lot of those individuals we put on long terms of probation rather than incarcerating them for that entire period or automatically, so we do pretty good at having one of the lowest incarceration rates but we have one of the highest drug conviction rates in the country and we put people on some very long terms of probation."
Ostrem, however, says he's concerned that backing away from the war on drugs could send the wrong message.
"I don't think we're winning the war on drugs. We win certain battles," he said. "Locally here we're seeing a lower influence of methamphetamine but heroin is coming back so I'd hate to say we're winning any particular war or it's not effective, so I really struggle with with decriminalizing or lowering the sanctions on anything."
In addition to rethinking how future offenders should be prosecuted, Attorney General Holder wants to look at releasing elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes.