Eric Holder Throws Down Gauntlet On Criminal Justice Reform


U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sent shockwaves around the country when he told the American Bar Association, the premier lawyers group in the country, that it is time to acknowledge some of the mistakes of the criminal justice system, which has been the bane of cries for reform for decades in the country.

The mass and disproportionate incarceration of people of color in America’s prisons has been at the center of calls for reform in the justice system by civil rights groups, leaders of human rights associations, activists, and former law enforcement officials.

But on Monday, Holder, the 82nd attorney general, changed the game, bringing with him major drug sentencing proposals to the ABA meeting in San Francisco where he told the influential lawyers group, no more harsh sentences for minor and non-violent drug offenses. Instead, treatment and community service are options that should be used.

“We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate — not merely to convict, warehouse and forget,” Holder said in his speech. “We can start by fundamentally rethinking the notion of mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes. Some statutes that mandate inflexible sentences — regardless of the facts or conduct at issue in a particular case — reduce the discretion available to prosecutors, judges and juries. They breed disrespect for the system. When applied indiscriminately, they do not serve public safety. They have had a disabling effect on communities, and they are ultimately counterproductive.”

Mandatory minimum sentences have been widely criticized by advocates for limiting the discretion of judges in imposing lesser sentences in low level and non-violent crime activities.

This major Justice Department change in policy could be seen as a way to address America’s overcrowded prisons.

“While the entire U.S. population has increased by about a third since 1980, the federal prison population has grown at an astonishing rate, by almost 800 percent. It’s still growing, despite the fact that federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity. Even though this country comprises just 5 percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. More than 219,000 federal inmates are currently behind bars,” Holder said. “Almost half of them are serving time for drug-related crimes, and many have substance use disorders. Nine to 10 million more people cycle through America’s local jails each year. And roughly 40 percent of former federal prisoners, and more than 60 percent of former state prisoners, are rearrested or have their supervision revoked within three years after their release, at great cost to American taxpayers and often for technical or minor violations of the terms of their release.”

Holder, whose remarks were part of his “Smart on Crime” initiative, said he has mandated a change in 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 told the ABA annual meeting.

Holder who prefaced his remarks with what he calls a “vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities,” said the justice system actually may “exacerbate this problem, rather than alleviate it.”

“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.

Wade Henderson, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights called Holder’s speech to the ABA “the most significant proposal ever put forth by the Justice Department to reform our nation’s disastrous criminal justice system.”

“For years, our justice system has treated dangerous criminals in the same manner as non-violent men and women. Instead of appropriate punishment and rehabilitation, the system destroys far too many lives and costs our nation tens of billions of dollars each year,” Henderson said. “This has created a modern day caste system in America, where millions people — mostly African Americans, Latinos, and low-income Whites — are marked with a scarlet letter that erects permanent barriers to getting a job or an education and to reintegrate into society.”

In Detroit, Barbara L. McQuade, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, the DOJ’s top envoy welcomed Holder’s speech to the ABA.

“The Attorney General’s Smart on Crime initiative recognizes that it is time to revisit the policies that have resulted in an 800 percent increase in our prison population since the 1980s, costing taxpayers $80 billion a year. The initiative seeks to protect public safety while improving fairness and efficiency,” McQuade said. “The new program emphasizes prevention and re-entry, and limits mandatory minimum sentences to the most serious offenders, so that defendants who do not threaten public safety are not incarcerated for long periods of time at taxpayer expense. While strong prison sentences are important to deter criminal conduct, these sentences should be reserved for dangerous criminals.”

Carl Taylor, Michigan State University Professor of Sociology said the announcement by Holder is long overdue.

“It is a tremendous plus but in my opinion is very late when you look at the state if Michigan where correction is the number one budget item,” Taylor said. “We have a very draconian approach to correction. What Holder did is the right way, the right policy…he even admitted that the system is broke and by placing these nonviolent individuals in prison when they come out, where is the infrastructure that is going to get them employment?”

Wayne State University Police Chief Tony Holt, said the reality and perception of crime, especially in urban cities such as Detroit, is at an all time high.

“For the victims of this reality the bottom line is ‘put them away and don’t let this happen to me again.’ Up to this point we have tried a variety of different programs to arrive at a solution from more police officers on the street to more jails being built,” Holt said. “So far the solution have not been attained as we can fill the jails faster than we can built them.”

He said he couldn’t agree more with Attorney General Holder, that it is time to develop a new law enforcement strategy.

“Being tough on crime does not mean we are being smarter on crime. The attorney general is on target is that we have to examine and develop new law enforcement strategies. We have to double this strategy with expanded and targeted resources to develop sustainable solution to the growing crime problem in America,” Holt said. “The key question is how can we move beyond party lines, community mistrust and fear to get everyone to the table to discuss the issue? We can only do so by getting everyone involved working together toward a common sustainable solution. Holder has given us a challenge.”


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