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Sentencing panel to focus on mandatory minimums

WASHINGTON (AP) – The U.S. Sentencing Commission on Thursday voted unanimously to address concerns with mandatory minimum prison penalties.

The commission action follows a Justice Department policy shift that was announced on Monday. Attorney General Eric Holder said the department would target long mandatory sentences that he says have flooded the nation’s prisons with low-level drug offenders and diverted crime-fighting dollars that could be better spent.

On Thursday, the sentencing commission set as its top priority continuing to work with Congress to change federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines.

The seven-member commission wants Congress to reduce the severity and scope of mandatory minimum penalties and consider expanding a law that exempts certain low-level nonviolent offenders from mandatory minimum prison terms

“With a growing crisis in federal prison populations and budgets, it is timely and important for us to examine mandatory minimum penalties and drug sentences, which contribute significantly to the federal prison population,” said Patti Saris, commission chairman and a federal judge.

The commission establishes sentencing policies and practices for the federal courts.

Long mandatory prison terms that apply to low-level drug offenders are a legacy of the government’s war on drugs in the 1980s.

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