Attorney General Eric Holder questions the effectiveness of the war on drugs. Could this be the beginning of major drug policy reform?

Attorney General Eric Holder Issues Major Sentencing Changes, Begins to Question War on Drugs

SAN FRANCISCO-In a speech to the American Bar Association today Attorney General Eric Holder announced major federal sentencing changes, including dropping the use of mandatory minimum sentencing in certain drug cases, expediting the release of certain nonviolent elderly prisoners, leaving more offenses to state courts to deal with, and working with Congress to pass bi-partisan sentencing reform.

In the speech, Holder said, “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.” He went on to say, “[T]oo many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.” In an interview with NPR, last week Holder said: “The war on drugs is now 30, 40 years old. There have been a lot of unintended consequences. There’s been a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color.”

“Attorney General Holder should have said years ago what he said today – and he knows it,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “But his speech today is still incredibly significant. It’s the first time a U.S. Attorney General has spoken so forcefully or offered such a detailed proposal for sentencing reform – and particularly notable that he framed the issue in moral terms.”

“It’s great that Attorney General Holder is condemning the mass incarceration and racial disparities that are the result of the war on drugs,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “We look forward to working with the Department of Justice on implementing a more humane, cost-effective approach to drugs and drug misuse.”

Anthony Papa, media manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, who served 12 years under New York’s Rockefeller drug laws before receiving clemency from the governor, said, “It isn’t clear what the Administration’s policy will mean for people currently behind bars but Obama should use his presidential authority to pardon and, in particular, commute the sentences of people who were charged under the old 100-to-1 crack to powder cocaine ratio. Society would be better served by not locking up people for extraordinarily long sentences for non-violent low-level drug offenses. It’s a waste of tax dollars and human lives.”

Holder’s policy shift accelerates the momentum for major criminal justice reform. Several bi-partisan reform bills have been introduced in Congress and a left/right consensus is building. A few months ago, a coalition of over 175 artists, actors, athletes, elected officials, and advocates, brought together by hip-hop pioneer Russell Simmons and Dr. Boyce Watkins, presented an open letter to President Obama urging him to tackle mass incarceration and drug policy reform. States have already taken the lead. Voters in Colorado and Washington, for instance, voted to end marijuana prohibition last November. Senator Patrick Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said he wants to have hearings on both sentencing reform and resolving the state/federal conflict over marijuana.

The Drug Policy Alliance urges the Obama Administration to support bi-partisan sentencing reform legislation in Congress, such as:

The Safety Valve Act, was introduced in the U.S. Senate by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy and Republican Senator Rand Paul, and in the U.S. House by Democratic Congressman Bobby Scott and Republican Congressman Thomas Massie. The bills would allow federal judges to sentence nonviolent offenders below the federal mandatory minimum sentence if a lower sentence is warranted.

The Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced in the U.S. Senate by Democratic Senator Dick Durbin and Republican Senator Mike Lee, would lower mandatory minimums for certain drug offenses, make the recent reduction in the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity retroactive, and give judges more discretion to sentence certain offenders below the mandatory minimum sentence if warranted.

The Public Safety Enhancement Act, introduced in the U.S. House by Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz and Democratic Congressman Bobby Scott, would allow certain federal prisoners to be transferred from prison to community supervision earlier if they take rehabilitation classes, saving taxpayer money while improving public safety.

The Obama Administration could also take more direct steps, such as:

Nominate a drug czar who is going to prioritize reducing the federal prison population and undoing racial disparities. ONDCP Director Gil Kerlikowske was recently nominated to head U.S. Customs and Border Protection, giving President Obama an opportunity to nominate someone who will aggressively shift our approach to drug use from a criminal justice issue to a health issue, which would substantially reduce mass incarceration while improving public health.

Issue directives keep federal law enforcement from interfering with state efforts to regulate marijuana instead of criminalizing it. 20 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use. Two states have legalized marijuana like alcohol. Polling indicates more states will likely adopt major marijuana reform in 2014 and 2016. Federal law should change to let states try new approaches that reduce incarceration.

President Obama should use his pardon and commutation power to let certain nonviolent drug offenders out early. In particular, he should use his power to commute the sentences of crack cocaine defendants unfairly languishing in prison under the old, racist 100-to-1 crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. That disparity was reduced to 18-to-1 in 2010 but was not made retroactive. The president has the power to make it retroactive.

“The U.S. is at a pivotal moment right now where a fundamental change to our bloated, racially-biased criminal justice system is possible,” said Piper. “But change isn’t inevitable; it will take significant leadership by Attorney General Holder, President Obama, and both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.”

Contact: Tommy McDonald: 510-229-5215 or Bill Piper: 202-669-6430