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New U.S. sentencing policy might apply to existing drug cases

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A new Justice Department policy that favors shorter prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders could be applied retroactively in some cases, Attorney General Eric Holder said on Thursday.

Holder said he has ordered federal prosecutors to consider carrying out the policy in cases of suspected offenders who have been charged but not yet found guilty, or guilty offenders who have not yet been sentenced.

Holder, the chief U.S. law enforcement official, unveiled the policy last month. It changed procedures that had, in some low-level cases, required judges to issue tough, mandatory sentences.

"By reserving the most severe prison terms for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers or kingpins, we can better enhance public safety," Holder said at a conference hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

It was unclear how many people would be affected by the change, which will be carried out by the 94 U.S. federal prosecution offices.

Some congressional Republicans have criticized the move, arguing that Holder should seek to amend drug laws if he wants to remake sentencing policy.

(Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Xavier Briand)

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