Holder Seeks Limits on Mandatory Sentencing

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaking during the 2013 America Bar Association annual meeting

Attorney General Eric Holder continued his push to eliminate the racial disparities in sentencing, announcing on Monday that the Department of Justice will conduct a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system and, specifically, drug sentencing and mandatory minimums.  The Black community is all too familiar with the discriminatory impact of the so-called “war on drugs,” which all too often puts Black and Latino people in prison en masse. Will the attorney general be able to put an end to this? Let's take a look at what was presented yesterday.

Holder's "Smart on Crime” report specified five goals: 1) To ensure finite resources are devoted to the most important law enforcement priorities, 2) To promote fairer enforcement of the laws and alleviate disparate impacts of the criminal justice system, 3) To ensure just punishments for low-level, nonviolent convictions, 4) To bolster prevention and reentry efforts to deter crime and reduce recidivism (relapses), and 5) To strengthen protections for vulnerable populations.

Yesterday's announcement was an executive move that doesn’t need Congressional approval and the hope is that it will encourage Congressional action on mandatory minimums in the near future.

The “war on drugs” has historically operated as a war on Black and Latino bodies, guaranteeing high incarceration rates that impact all aspects of life, from unemployment, to the vicious cycle of poverty, and even voter disenfranchisement in a number of key battleground states, like Florida and Virginia.

Holder began his tenure by first tackling the disparity in sentencing for crimes related to powdered cocaine vs. crack and now seeks to expand on that important effort.  “Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities.  However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem, rather than alleviate it,” Holder said to an audience at a national gathering of the American Bar Association.  The school-to-prison pipeline and high recidivism rates, make it almost impossible to escape this vicious cycle of poverty and in many communities, people are put in prison for possession-related offenses when drug treatment, not prison, is the more appropriate solution.

Anticipating partisan pushback, Holder noted that this new report and efforts to reform the criminal justice system have bipartisan support, and does not mean that the Obama administration is “soft on crime.” 

“The bottom line is that, while the aggressive enforcement of federal criminal statutes remains necessary, we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.  To be effective, federal efforts must also focus on prevention and reentry.  We must never stop being tough on crime.  But we must also be smart and efficient when battling crime and the conditions and the individual choices that breed it,” he said. 

Holder is looking to have many less serious federal cases to be prosecuted by state officials as opposed to federal prosecutors.  “Even as most crime rates decline, we need to examine new law enforcement strategies – and better allocate resources – to keep pace with today’s continuing threats as violence spikes in some of our greatest cities.  As studies show that six in ten American children are exposed to violence at some point in their lives – and nearly one in four college women experience some form of sexual assault by their senior year – we need fresh solutions for assisting victims and empowering survivors.  As the so-called 'war on drugs' enters its fifth decade, we need to ask whether it, and the approaches that comprise it, have been truly effective – and build on the Administration’s efforts, led by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, to usher in a new approach.  And with an outsized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter, and rehabilitate – not merely to warehouse and forget.”

This report and plan of action stands as a very tangible answer to the oft-raised question of "what is President Obama's administration doing for the Black community" and while no change to the expansive bastion that is the criminal justice system will happen overnight, these long overdue reforms make it possible to change the status quo for inner city communities and American families who have been torn apart and stifled by high incarceration rates.