WASHINGTON — As drug dealers go, Lori Ann Newhouse was strictly small time.
A high school dropout from a little Iowa town, Newhouse had three sons, a low-paying job as a telemarketer and a relentless methamphetamine habit. On St. Patrick's Day in 2011, Newhouse bought cold tablets used to make meth and traded them to a lab for a gram of the highly addictive drug.
Federal agents, it turned out, were watching.
Newhouse's bust landed her in the federal system in northern Iowa, where drug sentences have been among the harshest in the nation. Prosecutors decided that a past conviction — she had been caught in a motel room with drugs and a dealer boyfriend — qualified her for a doubled mandatory minimum sentence, from five to 10 years.
U.S. District Judge Mark W. Bennett, a fierce critic of mandatory sentencing laws, thought that made no sense. "Newhouse is not Iowa's Pablo Escobar," he wrote in an opinion, referring to the infamous Colombian drug lord.
In an interview from prison in Mitchellville, Iowa, Newhouse said, "I was absolutely a nobody in that case."
Under mandatory sentencing laws, it has become a not-so-hidden fact of life in federal courthouses that prosecutors — not judges — effectively decide how long many drug criminals will spend behind bars. The result has been federal prisons packed with drug offenders.
But Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. is now trying to steer the Justice Department away from the get-tough policies that have led to lengthy sentences for what one judge called the "low-hanging fruit" in the drug war — dime-a-dozen addicts and street dealers.
Prosecutors have considerable discretion under the laws. If they cite the amount of drugs seized in the charging document, that can trigger the mandatory minimum; if they leave it out, it doesn't. For offenders with prior drug convictions, prosecutors can file a so-called 851 motion, named after a section in the federal code that automatically doubles a sentence — or makes it mandatory life.
Although the mandatory laws were supposed to lead to uniformity, statistics show huge variations across the country in how often prosecutors use them. Holder has instructed prosecutors to avoid using these powerful weapons against lower-level, nonviolent offenders, but, even so, they retain the authority to decide which small players get a break and which get slammed.
"It sounds really good, but it depends on how it's carried out in the field," Bennett said in an interview.
In the two months since Holder issued his new policy, some U.S. attorneys, including the two in Iowa, have begun to pull back, according to judges and attorneys.
"We had some terribly harsh sentences," said Randy Murrell, federal public defender in the northern district of Florida. "It's gone on for years, and no one had the courage and gumption to change it. I do think they are changing the policy now."
But elsewhere, change has been slower in coming.
"We are hopeful that this will loosen up some of the policies, but we have certainly not seen it yet," said Jonathan Hawley, the federal public defender in central Illinois, another district with a history of tough prosecutions.
The mandatory minimum drug law passed Congress in 1986, following the overdose death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias. The idea was to target drug kingpins and serious career drug traffickers.
"Drug kingpins — I haven't seen one yet," said senior District Judge Robert W. Pratt of Des Moines. Typically, he said, he handles meth users who turn to dealing in order to supply themselves.
Congress is now reconsidering the wisdom of that approach.
"There are instances where people who had a second or third strike got life in prison for a nonviolent crime," said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is sponsoring a bill with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, to allow federal judges to disregard mandatory sentences.
Prosecutors have been particularly aggressive in Iowa.