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By Kevin Johnson, USA Today

A diverse coalition of lawmakers and civil rights advocates largely embraced Justice Department proposals Monday that would break with harsh punishments for non-violent drug offenders and provide federal prosecutors with more authority on charging offenders.

Attorney General Eric Holder called for the shift in federal criminal justice policy in a speech before the American Bar Association, saying, "Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason."

The announcement was prompted in large part by the burgeoning costs of a prison system that has grown to nearly 220,000 inmates from 25,000 in 1980. Holder said mandatory minimum sentencing policies exacted "human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate."

Laws 'outdated'

Unusual political partnerships, featuring Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, have formed to propose modifications to the mandatory minimum laws.

Durbin called the sentencing laws "outdated" and said they cost taxpayers billions in prison costs. "Mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses have played a huge role in the explosion of the U.S. prison population," Durbin said Monday.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who along with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is sponsoring a bill that would provide federal judges more leeway in sentencing non-violent offenders, said he was "encouraged that the president and attorney general agree with me."

Discretion for prosecutors

Holder said some changes could be implemented without congressional action, including broader discretion for prosecutors to pursue drug traffickers and cartel leaders over simple drug abusers.

"This means that federal prosecutors cannot -- and should not -- bring every case or charge every defendant who stands accused of violating federal laws," Holder said, adding that policy would be developed to determine "when federal charges should be filed and when they should not."

The attorney general said a panel of federal prosecutors would examine sentencing disparities in which black offenders received 20 percent longer prison sentences than whites who were convicted of similar crimes. "This isn't just unacceptable," Holder said, "it is shameful."

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports treatment for drug offenders over incarceration, said Holder's proposals were overdue.

"There is no good reason why the Obama administration couldn't have done something like this during his first term," Nadelmann said.

(Copyright 2008 Gannett Co. Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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