On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced his “Smart on Crime” initiative, calling for major changes to drug sentencing, the release of elderly prisoners, and a decreased length of non-violent crime sentences. These measures will have a major impact on African-American defendants.
As previously reported — and indicated in Holder’s speech to the American Bar Association – Blacks have been disproportionately sentenced at higher rates than Whites, “African Americans are incarcerated at a rate six times more than Whites [and we must] Identify the obstacles and inequities” in the justice system in an effort to correct the system.
Many of these inequities in justice have led to the U.S. prison system facing major overcrowding problems: According to Holder, despite the United States having only 5 percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of the prisoners in the world are in the United States”
One key problem to prison overcrowding is the requirement for mandatory sentencing guidelines, which Holder is looking to change. These mandatory sentences take all discretion from the judge and prosecutor in sentencing a person who pleads guilty or is found guilty of a drug crime.
Holder has launched a review of policy in an effort to create fairness in the justice system.
“This is why I have mandated a modification of the Justice Department’s charging policies so that certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences. They now will be charged with offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins.”
Holder also said that he hopes states will follow his lead in modifying their sentencing requirements, which could ease pressure on the state-level and federal prison systems.
Holder is also focusing his attention on the unnecessary federal charges of Blacks and poor people by making sure “that federal prosecutors cannot – and should not – bring every case or charge every defendant who stands accused of violating federal law. Some issues are best handled at the state or local level,” he said.
This measure will cause some low-level and- medium-level charges to be filed in state courts instead of federal courts.
Why does this matter?
Because the federal system typically doles out stiffer penalties for similar offenses and decreases the likelihood of early release.
Holder is looking to adjust sentences for low-level drug crimes as well as modify the incarcerations of elderly, non-violent offenders and those who do not pose a threat to society. Part of the reason for the aging population in prison are the mandatory sentences that were imposed in years’ past. The mandatory sentences have caused an aging population of prisoners, thus costing the government considerable amounts of money in healthcare costs on top of the basic cost of incarceration.
Holder has also directed U.S. attorneys throughout the country to develop tailor-made guidelines for their communities. These guidelines will enable U.S. attorneys to utilize drug rehabilitation programs, re-entry programs, and other efforts to prevent recidivism of offenders.
On the other end of the spectrum, Holder announced that he has launched a system that will address and “confront the school to prison pipeline,” which causes so many Black boys and girls into the criminal justice system. Holder added, “Minor school disciplinary offense should put a student in the school principal’s office and not in the police precinct.”
This initiative will hopefully address cases similar to Kiera Wilmot, who was charged with a felony after she conducted a botched science experiment in Florida. Although Kiera’s case received national headlines, there are countless other similar cases that go unnoticed, forcing children in to the juvenile system.
In addition, Holder has ordered attorneys throughout the country to develop guidelines for their own communities. These guidelines will enable attorneys to develop alternatives to sentencing as well as address the individual needs of defendants and seek alternative sentencing plans for people accused of drug crimes.
“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.”
Programs that help prevent recidivism as well as drug treatment programs will help strengthen our communities and prevent people from unnecessarily being sentenced to prison.
It is about time something like this is happening.
Eric L. Welch Guster is founder and managing attorney of Guster Law Firm in Birmingham, Ala., handling criminal and civil matters, catastrophic injuries, criminal defense, and civil rights litigation. Mr. Guster has become a go-to lawyer for the New York Times, NewsOne, NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX, Black America Web, and various radio programs about various court issues and high-profile cases.