Preliminary data suggest that the U.S. Justice Department’s Smart on Crime effort to dial back tough penalties for nonviolent criminals is working, departing Deputy Attorney General James Cole tells NPR. “We said, ‘No, make the punishment and the charge fit the circumstances,’ ” Cole says. “And if the person that’s standing in front of you has a drug problem and that’s what’s driving it, deal with the drug problem. And if they have a mental health problem, deal with the mental health problem. Let’s not just throw people in jail as a way of trying to avoid dealing with the problems that are present.”
Fewer drug cases being brought in federal court, but the prosecutions are more serious, Cole says. Federal prosecutors are seeking fewer mandatory minimum sentences, with little to no reduction in the numbers of defendants who cooperate with authorities to build cases against kingpins. Cole says he’s confident his successor, longtime Atlanta federal prosecutor Sally Yates, will share those priorities and bring them to bear in the last two years of the Obama administration.