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W.Pa. U.S. attorney applauds Holder's policy on prosecuting drug cases

| Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013, 12:07 a.m.

The region's top federal prosecutor welcomed a Justice Department policy that gives his office more discretion in prosecuting drug cases.

David Hickton, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, said the policy announced on Monday by Attorney General Eric Holder matches his goal since he took office three years ago.

“We're in the business to provide justice,” Hickton said. “We're not just here to prosecute cases.”

Holder told the American Bar Association in San Francisco he would reverse a 10-year-old policy set by predecessor John Ashcroft that required federal prosecutors to pursue drug charges that would result in the longest possible sentence.

Instead, federal prosecutors can decide that state court is a better venue for some drug crimes and can avoid charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences, Holder said.

Hickton said that doesn't mean his office will become less aggressive in pursuing drug dealers.

“We are defining a way to be both hard on crime and smart on crime,” Hickton said. “We can't just prosecute our way out of crime. We know that.”

His office was carrying out many of the policies that Holder announced, but getting the official nod for targeting resources is important, Hickton said.

Hickton said he doesn't know how many people in Western Pennsylvania received mandatory minimum sentences.

A 2011 report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission said judges grant leniency to most people convicted of crimes that carry minimum penalties. The law allows leniency for people who cooperate with police or have negligible criminal histories.

In federal fiscal year 2010, judges nationwide imposed mandatory minimums on about 14.5 percent of the people who could have received them, the report says. The report doesn't provide figures for Western Pennsylvania, and an agency spokeswoman said no such figures are available.

J. Alan Johnson, a private attorney who was the U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh from 1981 to 1989, said Holder's policy puts the responsibility for enforcing the law where it belongs. He said Hickton “has the judgment to know what this district needs.”

Johnson said that “tough on crime” laws came from politicians and constitute bad policy.

“I think mandatory minimums are really terrible, terrible social and criminal justice policy,” defense attorney Stanton Levenson said. Punishment should be based on individual conduct by criminals.

Larry Likar, a former FBI agent who chairs the Department of Justice and Law and Security at La Roche College in McCandless, said mandatory minimums help prosecutors persuade criminals to plead guilty and provide information. Yet he agrees with Holder's policy change.

“We do have people in prisons who shouldn't be there,” Likar said.

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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