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Story highlights

If carried out, proponents say changes could reduce costs, lower prison ranks

Instead of prison, offenders might benefit from alternatives such as drug court

Some states led by Republicans, like Texas and Georgia, are using alternatives

Some in Congress are pushing proposals to take similar steps

Washington CNN  — 

The Justice Department is preparing an overhaul of how federal prosecutors deal with non-violent criminal offenders in a move that could mark the end of the tough-on-crime era, which began with strict anti-drug laws in the 1970s and accelerated with mandatory minimum prison sentences and so-called three-strikes laws.

The idea is to change the type of sentences that prosecutors seek in cases where instead of prison, offenders could benefit from alternatives such as drug court, a Justice Department official said.

While more flexible approaches to crime have long held support among liberal Democrats, fear of being tarred as weak on crime by Republican opponents has long caused moderate Democrats, particularly those running for president, to avoid the issue.

In recent years, however, some conservatives have begun pushing for some changes, using some of a few of the same buzzwords – prison-industrial complex, for one – to describe the inflexibility of the current criminal justice system.

That’s in part because reducing the prison population also could be a way to reduce budgets and reduce the size of government. More than a third of the Justice Department’s annual budget is spent on prisons and detention.

Attorney General Eric Holder is expected to announce the initiative at a speech in San Francisco on Monday.

Obama administration officials say the changes they are pursuing will not require congressional approval, although some lawmakers are pushing proposals to take similar steps.

The administration hopes the move will also address racial disparities in the U.S. prison population, of which ethnic minorities are a majority.

President Barack Obama nodded to some of the issues in remarks he made after the Trayvon Martin verdict last month, giving voice to African-American concerns that “there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.”

States using alternatives

The administration plans to highlight how states such as Texas and Georgia, led by Republicans, are using alternatives to prison to address the issue.

By leading the effort, Holder, who has been the focus of criticism for conservatives during his more than four years in office, could find himself on the same side as many of his fiercest Republican critics.

Critics say the current criminal justice system has become bloated with many offenders locked up for non-violent drug offenses or technical probation violations such as not checking in with probation officers, not for committing new crimes.

Holder in an April speech noted the huge economic burden that incarceration carries for federal, state and local budgets: $83 billion in 2009 alone.

The rise in conservative support for criminal justice changes has brought about some odd pairings for bills sponsored in Congress.

One by Sens. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, seeks to allow judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences when circumstances merit.

Another from Sens. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, would allow judges wider discretion in sentencing drug offenders.

One initiative sponsored by the conservative think-tank Texas Public Policy Foundation, called Right on Crime, has won support from conservatives such as Grover Norquist and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

It advocates among its principles that “criminal law should be reserved for conduct that is either blameworthy or threatens public safety, not wielded to grow government and undermine economic freedom.”

Norquist, in a video posted on the group’s website, advocates more use of technology, such as GPS-enabled ankle bracelets, to spend less money to combat crime.

Such ideas are “exactly where conservatives have been and ought to be in terms of combating crime while minimizing the possibility of abuse by government,” Norquist says.

Federal prison population up

Marc Levin, policy director for Right on Crime, said “the federal government is kind of late to the party” but welcomes moves to change federal sentencing rules.

He says conservative governors have led trends in reducing state prison populations, while the federal prison count has continued to rise. From a conservative view, he adds, “By and large criminal justice is a state responsibility and the federal government has gotten over extended on this.”

Holder, in his April speech to the National Action Network founded by Rev. Al Sharpton, highlighted many of the problems conservatives also cite in the criminal justice system. He noted that many prisoners aren’t rehabilitated in prison and reoffend within years of serving their sentences.

“As a nation – and as a people – we pay a high price whenever our criminal justice policies fall short of fairly delivering outcomes that deter and punish crime, keep the American people safe, and ensure that those who pay their debts to society have the chance to become productive, law-abiding citizens,” Holder said. “This is why – as we look toward the future – we must promote public safety and deterrence while at the same time ensuring efficiency and fairness.”