Local Attorney Reacts to Federal Sentencing Changes

Posted at: 08/13/2013 10:58 PM
By: Steph Crock

(ABC 6 News) -- They are major changes proposed to the nations criminal justice system. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder wants to scale back the use of harsh sentences for drug related crimes.

Holder suggests diverting low level offenders to treatment community service programs to clear out full prisons. He also wants to allow for the release of some elderly, nonviolent offenders. We sat down with Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem and he said, on one side, reducing some penalties could work, but he did raise concern saying one of the reasons local cases are prosecuted at the federal level are because of those more strict sentencing guidelines.

Following president Obama's push, Attorney General Eric Holder says it’s time to crack down on the crimes he considers more severe. “Targeting the most serious offenses, prosecuting the most dangerous criminals, directing assistance to crime hot spots, and promoting new ways to promote public safety, deterrence, efficiency, and fairness," said Eric Holder.

Though he doesn't see federal cases in court, Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem says some of the guidelines for comparing different crimes are fairly similar. "If you change the hierarchy of one, then you’re either minimizing or over emphasizing another types of crime,” said Ostrem. What he says usually are different, federal penalties are generally more severe.

"Part of the reason that we will pass off that jurisdiction is because the penalty is more significant," said Ostrem. He says several of cases at the state level are moved to the U.S. Attorney General’s Office for that reason, like if someone was charged for a substantially large drug crime."It's in cases like that, that we'll look at the United States Attorney to say, is that something that you want to prosecute? and sometimes they'll say no the penalty is appropriate in the state court, so we'll continue to prosecute it," said Ostrem.

Though many of those cases would call for harsher penalties, Ostrem agrees that the U.S. Attorney General isn't too far off in the need to cut back on inmates. "A case where the statute specifically says, if you're found guilty you have to go to prison for 15 years, well the judge might think well 5 years is enough, but the judge may not have the discretion. That's the piece that I think he needs to fix," said Ostrem.

Minnesota was referenced in talking about this solution because it has one of the country's lowest incarceration rates. Mark Ostrem says part of that is because, at the state level, probation is an option. That, generally isn't an option through in federal sentencing.