A change to how the federal government handles certain drug cases will mean a small portion of defendants in Northwest Indiana no longer automatically face at least five years in prison.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the move away from the mandatory minimum sentences Monday, saying that the country needs to find a better way to address the drug problem and find a way to cut rising incarceration costs, which totaled $80 billion in 2010.

The change is geared toward low-level defendants accused of possessing drugs with the intent to distribute who are not also accused of using a gun or violence as part of the crime or of being part of a criminal organization. Normally, someone convicted with a possession with intent to distribute charge will face a mandatory minimum of either five years or 10 years on prison if a certain amount of drugs is involved, which can be as low as 28 grams for crack cocaine.

Now federal attorneys are being told to charge these defendants differently so that the mandatory minimum is not triggered.

U.S. Attorney David Capp said the changes would affect a small amount of the drug cases in Northern Indiana, which make up about less than 10 percent of the cases in the district.

Capp stressed that other drug cases that do involve other aspects, such as using a gun or being connected to a gang, would still be treated as they are now.

“What we’ve been trying to do for a number of years now is really focus our scare resources on violent offenders, gun offenders and gangs,” Capp said. “...Many of our (defendants) have one of those things; most of them probably have all of the above.”

Capp said that with budget constraints — which have gotten tighter for most federal departments after spending cuts earlier this year — his office needs to focus on the cases that will have the biggest impact for Northwest Indiana.

He added that the people who will no longer be charged in such a way that mandatory minimum sentences won’t be triggered could still face prison time of five years or more. However, now that decision will be up to a federal judge.

Scott King, a local defense attorney, praised the move and said more should be done to leave sentencings up to a judge. He likened the hold that mandatory sentences place on judges like a football referee whose told he can’t call any penalties on one half of the field.

“Judges should be empowered to make appropriate sentencing decisions,” King said.

The attorney said he wants to know if changes will be made to cases that have already been charged against defendants but who have not been convicted. He also said he hopes that the federal government decides to grandfather the change in some way for those who have already been sentenced.

“If it stop here, it’s going to be a benefit to some people,” he said, adding that he thinks it should be opened up to even more defendants.

King said that he handles about a handful of cases a year that would likely be affected by the change.