Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Eric Holder Is Pushing Sentencing Reform as He Prepares to Leave the Obama Administration

The attorney general also fielded questions on the new immigration order, marijuana, and the Islamic State, at the National Press Club on Tuesday.

With his tenure nearing its end, Attorney General Eric Holder pushed for policy changes to avoid mandatory-minimum sentences for lesser drug charges, during a speech at the National Press Club Tuesday.

Holder has been pressing sentencing reform since 2013, when he introduced the "Smart on Crime" initiative to reduce sentencing for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. He backed the success of the policy based on a drop from 64 percent to 51 percent in federally charged drug-trafficking offenses carrying a "mandatory-minimum."

"While old habits are hard to break, these numbers show that a dramatic shift is underway in the mind-set of prosecutors handling nonviolent drug offenses. I believe we have taken steps to institutionalize this fairer, more practical approach such that it will endure for years to come," Holder said Tuesday.

Many Republicans and Democrats in Congress support some version of criminal-justice reform, although to different degrees. The Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reduce mandatory-minimums for some drug offenders, passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in January 2014 with broad bipartisan support. However, it's now less likely that any sweeping reform on mandatory-minimums will happen any time soon, as new Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley has cited them as one of the causes of reduced crime rates across the country over the past several decades.

During the event's question-and-answer session, Holder also addressed the Texas federal District Court judge's decision to halt the implementation of President Obama's immigration policy.

"We are still in the process of looking at the opinion and trying to decide what steps we make next. The solicitor general will ultimately make that decision in consult with me," Holder said. "It is a decision by one federal District Court judge. ... This, I would view as an interim step in a process that has more to play out."

He also fielded questions on Islamic State militants, particularly on how best to refer to them, a topic on which Republicans have criticized Obama.

"We spend more time talking about what do you call it versus what do you do about it," Holder said, referring to the use of the phrases Islamic extremism or radical Islam. "I'm not sure an awful lot is gained by how we say it. It doesn't have an impact on … the policies we put in place."

On marijuana, Holder welcomed congressional hearings to review the classification of marijuana under federal law. Currently, marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug, placing it in the most dangerous of five categories.

"This is a topic that ought to be engaged in by our nation, informed by the experiences we see in Colorado, Washington." Holder said. "There is, I think, a legitimate debate to be had on both sides of that question on where marijuana should be in terms of scheduling."

Holder, who has been attorney general since the beginning of Obama's presidency, announced his retirement last September and is now waiting for the Senate to confirm Loretta Lynch to succeed him before stepping down. Lynch is expected to be confirmed in early March.

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