The American Civil Liberties Unionwelcomed Attorney General Eric Holder to 2013 upon news that he would use a high-profile speech to announce major policy shifts in the Justice Department’s federal sentencing and enforcement arenas.
This was a shift that was a full four-year term of President Barack Obama — and more — in the making for liberals and civil libertarians.
What garnered the most attention was Holder’s proposal to end mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders, something that Holder painted as essential to cutting America’s soaring prison population and the economic and moral burdens that come with it.
Laura Murphy, the director at the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, and Vanita Gupta, the director of the organisation’s Center for Justice, put it like this:
What should we make of the nation’s top prosecutor calling out the US for throwing too many people behind bars and challenging the failed war on drugs?
First off, we should acknowledge that this is a big deal! This is the first speech by any Attorney General calling for such massive criminal justice reforms. This is the first major address from the Obama Administration calling for action to end the mass incarceration crisis and reduce the racial disparities that plague our criminal justice system. … This is great news.
Holder’s speech to the American Bar Association Monday in San Francisco served as a tacit admission of the failure behind one of the central pillars of the harsher “War on Drugs” era policy initiatives. At various points in his speech, he referred to mandatory minimum sentences as “counterproductive,” “draconian,” and “excessive.”
Advocates pushing for a shift away from mandatory-minimum sentencing used moral and economic arguments to make their case against it. The U.S. only comprises 5% of the world’s population, but it accounts for about 25% of the world’s prison population. And according to the Department of Justice, federal prisons are about 40% over capacity. About half of the 219,000 inmates in federal prisons are serving time for drug-related offenses.
Here’s a chart from the Families Against Mandatory Minimums Foundation that explains the economic consequences that have followed:
The shift in mandatory-minimum sentencing is also part of comprehensive prison reform package — one that Holder wants to use as a key basis of his legacy. Holder also unveiled policy shifts to reduce sentences for elderly, nonviolent inmates, as well as seeking alternative punishments to prison for nonviolent criminals.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), one of the Obama administration’s most prominent critics on the issue, said in a statement that he was “encouraged” by the shift.
“I am encouraged that the President and Attorney General agree with me that mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders promote injustice and do not serve public safety,” Paul said.
Paul touted Holder’s speech as momentum for bipartisan legislation he introduced in March, which was co-sponsored by libertarian Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and liberal Democratic Sens. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.). The legislation would allow judges to sentence federal offenders below the mandatory-minimum sentence “whenever that minimum term does not fulfil the goals of punishment.”
Holder’s speech was the first and most high-profile wading into the debate from the Obama administration. That it came from the top was cheered by longtime advocates like FAMM.
“For the past 40 years, the Department of Justice, under both political parties, has promoted mandatory minimum sentencing like a one-way ratchet,” FAMM President Julie Stewart said in a statement.
“Federal prison sentences got longer and longer and no one stopped to consider the costs and benefits. Today, at long last, the politics of criminal sentencing have caught up to the evidence.”
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