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Monday, August 12, 2013

Attorney General Eric Holder Calls For Sentencing Reform Except for Incarcerated Crack Users

Posted By on Mon, Aug 12, 2013 at 4:00 PM

Crack's still wack -- and so are you
  • Crack's still wack -- and so are you

It's been a rough go for Attorney General Eric Holder. Many thought Holder -- a Chicago buddy of President Barack Obama -- would be among the first Cabinet members to depart in Obama's second term, following the embarrassment of the Fast and Furious gun-walking scandal.

Yet Holder has hung on. Today, he was in San Francisco -- where his Justice Department is staging an erratic and unpopular fight against medical marijuana -- to, as the New York Times observed, "bolster his image and legacy." Holder will do so, he told the American Bar Association, by rectifying injustice within his own legal system. Too many people are in prison for too long, and for crimes that are simply not serious offenses.

Holder identified problems and called for reform. All that needs saying. But it also needs doing -- and right now, what the Department of Justice is doing is trying to keep some of these same nonviolent offenders where they've been: in prison, for decades.

Holder's speech was no secret. News sources last week signaled he would talk sentencing reform today, and major news outlets were given a copy of his remarks before he took to the podium at the Moscone Center at 10 a.m.

Holder was frank: "[W]e must face the reality that, as it stands, our system is in too many respects broken," he said. "It's clear ... that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason."

"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."

The facts are stark, and Holder laid it out, saying the U.S. has a prison population that's grown 800 percent since 1980, a federal prison system 40 percent above capacity, and half of the 219,000 federal prisoners are behind bars for drugs. Is this a good way to spend $80 billion?

In many ways, Holder's speech is true progress. To hear the attorney general openly acknowledge the results of the Nancy Reagan "Just Say No" era of hysteria as damaging and fundamentally unjust is significant.

So too is it significant to hear the country's top prosecutor identify the United States as over-incarcerated -- and the country's sentencing as blatantly racist (statistically, black men receive sentences 20 percent harsher than whites for identical crimes, Holder said).

To right these wrongs, Holder will ask judges and prosecutors to "reserve" the toughest of penalties for violent offenders, and for "certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders" with no links to gangs or cartels to be slapped with mandatory minimums.

The problem is that he goes nowhere near far enough. Among the reforms peddled during the tough-on-crime 1980s was "100-to-1" sentencing ratios for crack versus powder cocaine. These meant that someone with five grams of crack would face the same penalty as someone with 500 grams of cocaine. Crack users punished as severely as cocaine dealers; crack, a lower-class drug; cocaine, a higher-class drug -- see the problem here?

Following legislation, the United States Sentencing Commission recently approved a reduction of the ratio from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1, but even that should strike the barely aware as still unfair

Holder signals that mandatory minimums are draconian and unfair -- but he makes no motion to suggest that they should be repealed. That means scenes like dispensary operators being sentenced to years in prison for crimes permitted by the state of California will continue to be played out.

Worst, the damage has been done -- and Holder has no plan to undo it. An easy way to immediately reduce the prison load -- thereby saving money as well as lives -- would be to allow all currently incarcerated crack users or other people in prison solely on dope charges to use the new law to reduce their sentences. Holder did not suggest this today.

In fact, his attorneys earlier this summer were working against any prisoner using the Fair Sentencing Act to retroactively reduce a Reagan-era sentence.

In May, a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling stated that prisoners sentenced in the 25-plus years prior to the Fair Sentencing Act could ask a federal judge to use the new guidelines to reduce their sentences, the so-called Blewett ruling. And as reported in the UK Guardian and elsewhere, the Justice Department appealed the ruling, sending a frank message to anyone sentenced to decades on mandatory minimums for a $5 rock: Tough shit.

Holder also took no questions from his audience -- which was full of lawyers and prosecutors -- and did not take questions from the media. It's too bad -- it would have been interesting to hear Holder explain his office working to seize medical cannabis dispensaries in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco, despite outcry from local governments.

Better? Sure. Equal? Not yet. As of now, history will show Holder left plenty unsaid -- and plenty more undone.

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About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.


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