"We must never stop being tough on crime," Holder said. "But we must also be smart and efficient when battling crime and the conditions and the individual choices that breed it."
Holder made the comments in a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco,
The attorney general said he has "today mandated a modification of the Justice Department's charging policies so that certain low-level, non-violent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences."
In prepared remarks, Holder said such suspects "now will be charged with offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins. By reserving the most severe penalties for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers, we can better promote public safety, deterrence and rehabilitation -- while making our expenditures smarter and more productive. "
The attorney general said the approach has bipartisan support in Congress.
Holder said U.S. prisons and jails are too crowded.
"While the entire U.S. population has increased by about a third since 1980, the federal prison population has grown at an astonishing rate -- by almost 800 percent," he said. "It's still growing -- despite the fact that federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity. Even though this country comprises just 5 percent of the world's population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world's prisoners. More than 219,000 federal inmates are currently behind bars. Almost half of them are serving time for drug-related crimes, and many have substance use disorders. Nine to 10 million more people cycle through America's local jails each year. And roughly 40 percent of former federal prisoners -- and more than 60 percent of former state prisoners -- are rearrested or have their supervision revoked within three years after their release, at great cost to American taxpayers and often for technical or minor violations of the terms of their release."
Holder said the U.S. Justice Department is expanding the criteria for compassionate release of prisoners who pose no threat to the public, including elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes.
Lawmakers of both parties have made similar suggestions in recent weeks.
Under the new policy, federal prosecutors would press to send more drug offenders to treatment and community service instead of prison for long terms, the text indicated.
A Justice Department spokesman told the Los Angeles Times officials didn't know how many future prosecutions this change would affect.
Civil rights groups have argued for years long prison sentences disproportionately hurt low-income and minority communities -- a point Holder made in a National Public Radio interview Wednesday.