Federal prosecutors working to reduce prison overcrowding

A U.S. Department of Justice directive this week to reduce the federal prison population by easing mandatory sentences for some drug offenders will impact the U.S. Middle District.

“It’ll have a particular impact in our district,” said Peter J. Smith, the U.S. attorney for a district that includes Williamsport, Scranton and Harrisburg.

Earlier this week, Attorney General Eric Holder announced plans designed to reduce the federal prison population by re-examining sentencing guidelines.

Nationally, federal prisons are 40 percent overcapacity, according to Rhonda Pence, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals in Arlington, Va.

“It’s an acute problem in our district,” Smith said. “We probably have among the largest population of incarcerated federal inmates in the nation.”

To ease overcrowding, more attention is being paid by federal prosecutors to whether the mandatory minimum is applied too broadly, according to Smith. “The initiative allows us to deal with the most dangerous criminals and provide alternatives,” he said.

As a result of the announcement, federal prosecutors will be required to individualize their approach to criminal cases and use mandatory minimum sentencing more appropriately, he said.

“We try to make the charge fit the offense that’s alleged and most of the time I think we’re successful in that,” Smith said.

“It doesn’t give a green light to violent offenders or those associated with drug gangs and drug organizations,” Smith added. “It means we will use the weapons we have available, but use them more precisely and more effectively.”

There are alternatives for less violent criminals, such as pre-trial diversion and supervised re-entry programs, Smith said.

In pre-trial diversion, charges are held pending until the individual completes the appropriate program – such as treatment or counseling – and once that is done the charges may be dismissed, Smith said.

Diversionary programs may be better for society as a whole, Smith suggested, because it will reduce the number of people sitting in prison and provide supervised assistance to those offenders who are prepared to re-enter society.

“It cuts down on the recidivism (repeating the crime) rate,” Smith said. “We’ve been given a lot of discretion in each district office to focus more precisely on the most appropriate process for sentencings in each case.”

D. Toni Byrd, a federal public defender, said she views it as a step in the right direction.

“I think this is recognition by the attorney general that sentences are too long,” she said. “Many of the sentences are not appropriate, leading to over-incarceration.”

In many instances, the non-violent offenders are addicts who have distributed enough quantities of drugs as to land minimum mandatory sentences, she said.

She said the department’s initiatives should allow the judges to have more discretion in their sentencing.