Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement on Aug. 12 of a set of prosecutorial reforms, including ways of avoiding mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenses, is being praised by people on both sides of the ideological aisle.
“I think this will be pretty well received whether you look at it from a social justice perspective or a fiscal perspective,” said Chris Deutsch, spokesman, National Association of Drug Court Professionals. “It appeals to people over a broad spectrum. Everyone is ready for a change.”
In his speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco, Holder said Justice Department officials have worked for months on proposals to begin fixing a “broken” criminal justice system that is rife with disparities.
As part of his “Smart on Crime” initiative, Holder gives federal prosecutors more discretion to use locally-tailored guidelines for determining when federal charges should be filed, with an eye to focusing resources on fighting violent crime.
He has also directed “all U.S. Attorneys to create – and to update – comprehensive anti-violence strategies for badly-afflicted areas within their districts. And I’ve encouraged them to convene regular law enforcement forums with state and local partners to refine these plans, foster greater efficiency, and facilitate more open communication and cooperation,” he said.
“Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities,” Holder said. “And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems, rather than alleviate them.”
“By prioritizing prosecutions, we increase the resources that we can devote to battling the violent offenders who threaten our neighborhoods,” said Ronald C. Machen Jr. U.S. attorney for Washington D.C., in an e-mailed statement. “We look forward to implementing the Department’s new guidance in a manner that conserves our resources so that we can best confront our most pressing and persistent public safety challenges.”
The plan also calls for averting mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with no ties to gangs or large-scale drug organizations; reducing sentences for elderly, nonviolent inmates and promoting diversion programs instead of prison for nonviolent criminals.
“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,” Holder said.
Liberal lawmakers and social justice groups are praising the attorney general for addressing the issue of hardline anti-drug penalties—a “misguided” policy birthed from the so-called War on Drugs—which, they say, has perpetuated a “cradle-to-prison pipeline” among Blacks and Hispanics.
“Mandatory sentences have been disproportionately invoked against people of color ever since their inception 20-30 years ago,” said A. Dwight Pettit, a well-known Baltimore lawyer who said he’s seen many clients over the years who have been overly penalized by draconian judicial policies.
Pettit said change to the patently “unfair” system, which he compared to “modern slavery,” was slow in coming because “loading up of jails became a new industry.”
The impact of such policies on communities of color has been devastating, activists say, straining and draining their resources.
“Mandatory minimum sentences are not only unfair in stature and consequence, they represent a serious threat to the civil rights gains and progress of the 1960s and 70s,” said Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law President and Executive Director Barbara Arnwine in a statement.
“These sentences are counterproductive and create a long-term adverse cycle of negative reinforcement, have disastrous effects on housing, employment and education, and tear apart families and communities – while doing little or nothing to make us safer.”
Hilary Shelton, NAACP Washington Bureau chief, said disproportionate incarceration among Blacks—who comprise about 40 percent of the nation’s prison population—has led to decreased political power.
“Voting capital is also lost because you’re taking voting population off the street…and in many states they receive a lifetime ban on voting rights,” Shelton said, citing statistics that one-third of the ex-felons who can’t vote are African American.
Conservatives concerned with over-criminalization’s rising toll on the federal budget have also given Holder’s plan faint praise—sprinkled with criticism that his efforts lag behind those already implemented by states.
“Over the years, political leaders have failed to hold the criminal justice system accountable for its alarming increase in spending and lack of results,” said Marc Levin, on behalf of Right on Crime, a conservative criminal justice reform movement. “It’s good to see the administration following the lead of conservative states such as Texas, South Carolina, and Georgia that have proven it’s possible to reduce crime while also reducing criminal justice spending.”
There are currently about 2.4 million persons being held nationally in U.S. prisons and jails across the country, half of them for nonviolent drug offenses. In federal prisons alone, the number of inmates skyrocketed from approximately 25,000 in 1980 to nearly 219,000 in 2012, an almost 800 percent increase, and the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) is operating at almost 40 percent over capacity, the Congressional Research Service found in a recent report.
Taxpayers pay about $26,000 to house an inmate for one year, which translated to a nationwide cost to state and federal budgets of about $80 billion in 2010 alone.
That is money “that can be put towards the education system, towards creating jobs…towards helping with health care and retirement…. There are an awful number of things that this money can be used on,” Shelton said.
Holder said the Justice Department is also supporting bi-partisan legislation that seeks to enshrine some of his reforms into law.