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ND prosecutors on track for new drug law guidelines

Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday announced sweeping directives on federal drug prosecutions, but North Dakota's top lawyer says increased drug use in the western part of the state already has attorneys here following Holder's philosophy of focusing on big fish, not small offenders.

For years academics and criminal justice advocacy groups have called for reforms to the current system, one with relics of the War on Drugs and one that produces the highest incarceration rate of any nation.

Holder announced "common sense changes," including mandating that U.S. attorneys stop charging low-level nonviolent drug offenders with crimes that bring "draconian" mandatory minimum sentences. In his speech, given at the American Bar Association, Holder mandated U.S. attorneys shift their focus away from low-level offenders. This, he said, will reserve time and energy for the violent drug traffickers, and avoid crackdowns on low-level offenders.

But Tim Purdon, the U.S. attorney for North Dakota, said prosecutors here have already been operating in that spirit.

"We've had to undertake a reevaluation of our priorities in those sorts of things over the last six months to a year anyway as a result of the increased number of cases," he said. He's not devoting as many resources to the first-time offenders with small amounts of drugs and no connections to cartels.

Federal prosecutions out of western North Dakota have skyrocketed since the boom, rising from 126 in 2009 to being on pace for more than 400 this year. Purdon said a big reason for the increase is drug use.

And with limited resources -- he's lost lawyers, not added them -- Purdon's office has already been prioritizing resources to focus on "the worst of the worst." Prosecutors are focusing on the "kingpins" -- the multistate, multinational drug trafficking organizations.

He said his office has seen an increase in organized drug trafficking and "sophisticated drug distribution" in western North Dakota.

The U.S. imprisonment rate is driving the change.

"You have to realize over the last 30 years the federal prison population has grown ... (by) 800 percent," he said, adding that that has overloaded prisons and costs. "This concept is unsustainable."

Pat Merriman, Dunn County assistant state's attorney, said he hasn't had much time to digest the news, but that he remembers how a lot of the sentencing policies Holder discussed were a reaction to the drug epidemic of the '90s.

University of North Dakota criminal justice Professor Michael Meyer said he's seen this trend in North Dakota since moving here in 1984. Back then, the prison population in the state was about 500. Now, while the state population has risen only slightly, the inmate population has tripled.

Other area state's attorneys declined to comment or couldn't be reached.

"It's not working," Meyer said of the current system. "We can tell because the prison population is growing."

Meyer said he expects Holder's directives will mostly affect 18- to 25-year-olds, who make up many first-time drug offenders.