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Holder endorses proposed nonviolent drug sentencing reforms

WASHINGTON - Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday endorsed a proposal that would result in shorter prison sentences for many nonviolent drug traffickers, saying the change would rein in runaway federal prison costs and create a fairer criminal justice system.

Earlier this week, CBS News' Crimesider reported on the fact that there are still several individuals serving life in prison without parole sentences for nonviolent marijuana-related offenses, despite marijuana becoming more widely accepted in the United States.

A November 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union says at least 3,279 prisoners in the U.S. are serving life without parole sentences for nonviolent drug and property crimes. Nearly four in every five were convicted of crimes involving drugs.

"This focused reliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable - it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate," Holder said in an appearance before the Sentencing Commission, an independent agency that establishes sentencing policies, on Thursday.

In a country where nearly half of all federal inmates are serving time for drug crimes, the harshest penalties should be reserved for violent drug defendants and criminals with long rap sheets, Holder said.

Holder directed prosecutors in August to stop charging many nonviolent drug defendants with offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences. He has also said he also wants to divert people convicted of low-level offenses to drug treatment and community-service programs and to expand a prison program to allow the release of some elderly, nonviolent offenders. Bipartisan legislation pending in Congress would give judges more discretion in sentencing defendants for drug crimes.

Earlier this week, Crimesider profiled two elderly, nonviolent marijuana-related offenders who are currently serving life without parole sentences.

John Knock, 67, is serving two life terms plus twenty years for three marijuana-related conspiracy charges. He was indicted in 1994 in the Northern District of Florida on charges of conspiracy to money launder and conspiring to import and distribute marijuana as part of a reverse sting. He was sentenced in 2000 following a trial. Knock was a first time offender with no history of violence or drug abuse, according to his sister, Beth Curtis.

Jeff Mizanskey, a 61-year-old Missouri man, was sentenced in May 1994 to life in prison without parole for nonviolent marijuana-related violations of Missouri law. He was arrested in late 1993 in a sting operation when he drove an acquaintance to buy seven pounds of marijuana. He was charged with intent to distribute, a Class B felony that was enhanced to a Class A felony due to Mizanskey's prior cannabis convictions.

While Holder's announcement Thursday won support from groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) is opposing the proposal. They argue that mandatory sentences have been helpful in securing cooperation from defendants and witnesses and that the majority of federal prisoners "have been very bad actors for a long time."

"Rewarding convicted felons with lighter sentences because America can't balance its budget doesn't seem fair to both victims of crime and the millions of families in America victimized every year by the scourge of drugs in America's communities," Raymond Morrogh, the top prosecutor in Fairfax County, Va., and the director-at-large of NDAA, said in prepared remarks.

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