Attorney General Holder to Announce Sweeping Changes in Laws to Reduce Drug Offenses

The Obama administration is tacking one of the most serious issues affecting the black community and young black males, as Attorney General Eric Holder is scheduled to deliver a speech later today to announce that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with no ties to gangs or large-scale drug organizations will no longer be charged with offenses that impose severe mandatory sentences.

The major policy change, which the Justice Department has been working on for months, is part of a comprehensive prison reform package that Holder will reveal in a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco, according to several published reports. Intended to reduce the nation’s exploding prison population, these changes mostly can be implemented without the approval of Congress.

Holder also is expected to introduce a policy to reduce sentences for elderly, nonviolent inmates and find alternatives to prison for nonviolent criminals, such as drug treatment programs.

These sweeping changes could have a dramatic effect on African-American communities, where huge numbers of young black males are sucked into the criminal justice system because of the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Observers believe the new policy is Holder’s attempt to burnish his legacy as attorney general.

“A vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities,” Holder plans to say Monday, ­according to excerpts published by newspapers, including The Washington Post. “However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem rather than alleviate it.”

“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason,” he will say in his speech. “We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.”

The American prison system is the most excessive on the planet. The U.S. is home to just 5 percent of the world’s population, but nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners,  according to the Justice Department. This excess falls disproportionately on the African-American community—a fact of which Holder is well aware.

The cost of incarceration in the United States was $80 billion in 2010, according to Justice Department figures. And most alarmingly, while the U.S. population has increased by about a third since 1980 and the crime rate has fallen to levels not seen in a generation, the federal prison population has grown by about 800 percent—with federal prisons operating nearly 40 percent over capacity.

Most of that prison increase is due to mandatory minimum sentences for drugs, including marijuana, under legislation passed in the 1980s.
As an example, a minimum sentence of five years without parole was mandated for possession of five grams of crack cocaine, while the same sentence was mandated for possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine. This discrepancies hit heavy in black communities.“Sentencing by mandatory minimums is the antithesis of rational sentencing policy,” American Bar Association lawyer James E. Felman said in testimony three years ago before the U.S. Sen­tencing Commission, according to The Washington Post.

There are more than 219,000 federal inmates behind bars—almost half of them are serving time for drug-related crimes—while an additional 9 million to 10 million people pass through local jails in the United States each year.

In addition, according to the Justice Department, about 40 percent of former federal prisoners and more than 60 percent of former state prisoners are rearrested or have supervision revoked within three years after their release, usually for technical or minor parole violations.

Holder is seeking to reserve the most severe penalties for serious, high-level or violent drug traffickers. To back up his policy, he has directed his 94 U.S. attorneys across the country to develop specific, locally tailored guidelines for determining when federal charges should be filed and when they should not.

The attorney general can make some of these changes to drug policy on his own, such as giving instructions to federal prosecutors to omit listing quantities of illegal substances in indictments for low-level drug cases so as not to trigger the mandatory minimum sentences. But certain statutes require inflexible sentences for drug crimes, regardless of the facts or conduct in the case, thus diminishing the discretion of prosecutors, judges and juries.
Holder also wants Congress to pass legislation with bipartisan support aimed at giving federal judges more discretion in applying mandatory minimum sentences to certain drug offenses.“Such legislation will ultimately save our country billions of dollars,” Holder said of legislation supported by Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.). “Although incarceration has a role to play in our justice system, widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable.”As pointed out by The New York Times, Holder is trying to avoid political controversy by painting his effort as following the lead of prison reforms in primarily conservative-led Southern states, such as Texas and Arkansas.

Those states have saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of by instituting such changes as reducing prison terms for low-level drug offenders or diverting them into treatment programs; releasing elderly or well-behaved inmates early; and expanding job training and re-entry programs.

In Kentucky, officials have used new policies to reserve prison beds for only the most serious criminals, focusing resources instead on community supervision and other alternatives. The Justice Department said Kentucky is projected to reduce its prison population by more than 3,000 over the next 10 years, saving more than $400 million. Arkansas has reduced its prison population by more than 1,400 inmates and Texas by more than 5,000 inmates last year.
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