Two high-ranking Edgecombe County law enforcement officials said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement of avoiding charging certain low-level and nonviolent drug offenders with crimes that carry mandatory minimums will not effect their fight on drugs — at least for right now.
With the U.S. facing massive overcrowding in its prisons on Aug. 12 Holder called for major changes to the nation’s criminal justice system that would scale back the use of harsh sentences for certain drug-related crimes.
"As of this moment, we're going to continue to do what we've been doing," said Edgecombe County Sheriff James Knight. "There has not been any regulations passed down that will prevent that."
The Sheriff's Office and the Tarboro Police Departments are in the midst of a drug campaign they named, "Operation Spring Fling." Since April, the operation has organized five sting operations that have netted more than 80 arrests, including some alleged dealers who have been arrested twice. The majority of the arrests fits Holder's criteria of low level.
"The low level guys are taking up space but we're not going to stop (arresting them)," said Tarboro Police Chief Damon Williams. "Some of the suspects that we picked up in our first raid, we are picking up again. How do you fix that? The problem is not that the punishment is not severe enough. I think that we should pay more attention to educating them before they get to this point."
Williams gave a crime report to his town council the same day that Holder made his announcement. Town Councilman Taro Knight said he was concerned about the low level drug arrests.
"I, 100 percent, believe that we should do everything possible to stop the sale and use of drugs," Knight said during a telephone interview on Sunday. "But, I believe in making quality arrests. When you target a teenager and he gets arrested. that will affect him the rest of his life. What this will do is create an underclass citizen. They are not able to get jobs, they're not able to do anything to support their family. So they go back in the streets and create crimes. If we didn't incarcerate that individual, we probably could have saved him. That's the problem of mandatory minimum."
The impact of Holder’s initiative on mandatory minimum sentences could be significant, says Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a non-profit group involved in research and policy reform of the criminal justice system.
There are roughly 25,000 drug convictions in federal court each year and 45 percent of those are for lower-level offenses such as street level dealers and couriers and people who deliver drugs, said Mauer.
The unanswered question is how each of the 94 U.S. Attorneys offices around the country will implement changes, given the authority of prosecutors to exercise discretion in how they handle their criminal cases.
African-Americans and Hispanics likely would benefit the most from a change. African-Americans account for about 30 percent of federal drug convictions each year and Hispanics account for 40 percent, according to Mauer.
If state policymakers were to adopt similar policies, the impact of changes at the state level could be even broader, said Mauer. Currently, about 225,000 state prisoners are incarcerated for drug offenses, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. One national survey from 15 years ago by the Sentencing Project found that 58 percent of state drug offenders had no history of violence or high-level drug dealing.
“These proportions on state prisoners may have shifted somewhat since that time, but it’s still likely that a substantial proportion of state drug offenders fall into that category today,” said Mauer.
Federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity and hold more than 219,000 inmates — with almost half of them serving time for drug-related crimes and many of them with substance use disorders. In addition, 9 million to 10 million prisoners go through local jails each year. Holder praised state and local law enforcement officials for already instituting some of the types of changes Holder says must be made at the federal level.
Aggressive enforcement of federal criminal laws is necessary, but “we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation,” Holder said.
The attorney general said some issues are best handled at the state or local level and said he has directed federal prosecutors across the country to develop locally tailored guidelines for determining when federal charges should be filed, and when they should not.
"Law enforcement officers knows that we have lost the war on drugs but we're going to do everything to continue to fight it," Williams said. "Citizens in our community can do there part by assisting us. Maybe then we can get the big fish."
(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)