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Eric Holder proposes new sentencing for drug offenders

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GREENVILLE, N.C. -

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is pitching a plan to ease prison overcrowding.

Right now federal prisons nationwide are 40 percent over capacity. Holder says he plans to alleviate the problem by ending harsh prison sentences for some drug-related crimes.

He wants to do away with mandatory sentences and leave it up to a judge's discretion.

"We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter, and rehabilitate – not merely to convict, warehouse and forget," Holder said Monday.

More than a dozen states are already moving in Holder's direction, shifting money away from prisons and to drug treatment centers.

With Holder's announcement making headlines across the country, 9 On Your Side dug deeper to find out how it'll impact us here in the East.

"Eric Holder's proposed reforms would have a tremendous impact locally," says Keith Williams, a criminal defense attorney and board certified specialist in federal and state criminal law. "Number 1, fewer cases would go from state court to federal court. So, a person charged with a local state crime would be less likely to go to federal court."

"Number 2, a person who does go to federal court would probably come home sooner because the sentences would be lower. Number 3, if there's someone who's sick or older, they would probably come home sooner to the local community."

Williams says fewer inmates also means better use of your money. He says tax dollars could be re-directed to drug treatment and community service programs instead of mass incarceration.

"I do think it would save serious money if we could reform the system," he says. "And I do think we've gone from 300,000 prisoners to 2 million prisoners in the space of 30 years. I think we've gone too far in the other direction and we need to pull that back."

But some law enforcement officers believe mandatory minimum sentences are effective, and they worry shorter sentences could translate to repeat arrests.

"It's that revolving door, that recidivism of dealing with the same people over and over again," says Capt. Paula Dance of the Pitt County Sheriff's Office. "And when there's no deterrence, when you don't have anything that's going to keep them from getting back out there again, then certainly that makes our job harder." 

Williams says North Carolina's state prison populations are dropping since starting to invest more money in treatment programs. He believes this will work at the federal level, too.

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