Eric Holder Takes Another Step In The Right Direction

[ Posted Thursday, March 13th, 2014 – 15:51 UTC ]

Attorney General Eric Holder today called for shorter sentences to be handed down for non-violent drug offenses, which would reduce prison time for many people caught with drugs. By doing so, he has taken another step in the right direction: away from the worst aspects of the "War On Drugs," and towards a more sane federal policy. The Obama administration -- Holder in particular -- has been charting a new path for the past year or so on this subject, and it is a welcome change. The new changes won't go far enough, though. Much more work needs to be done. How much of that will happen in the next year is open to speculation.

The biggest question is probably how long Holder will continue in his position. He seemed to indicate in a recent interview that he will probably step down sometime this year, after he's accomplished the work he's set out for himself. Since that interview, the subject of Holder stepping down has been walked back by the Justice Department, though, so it's anyone's guess when Holder might be thinking of leaving.

The Obama administration has been taking steps since the beginning on dialing back the unproductive parts of the War On Drugs, but these steps have also been interspersed with lurches back to "lock 'em all up!" type activities, especially when it gets down to the level of individual U.S. Attorneys (federal prosecutors). On medical marijuana, at first Holder's Justice Department seemed to give a green light to the states that had legalized it, but after about two years seemed to reverse course and return to excessive prosecutorial heavy-handedness. So all of the steps the Obama administration has taken haven't been uniformly in the right direction.

Perhaps the freedom of a second term has changed things. It certainly seems so, since the past year alone has seen some of the most dramatic changes in federal enforcement and policy since the Drug War began. Colorado and Washington have been allowed to proceed with their recreational marijuana legalization experiment, instead of being tied up in the federal courts over the initiatives (which could easily have happened under a different president). Banks have been told it is allowable for marijuana businesses in good standing with their states to do business. This may allow the entire country to accurately see the outcomes of the legalization experiment, without the federal government trying to influence such outcomes. That is a whopping big change, right there.

Holder's announcement today that prison sentencing reforms are in order is also a big change. Mandatory minimums were a hot topic in the 1980s, as politicians fell all over themselves to prove that they were "tough on drugs" and "tough on crime," in order to win suburbanites' votes. As a direct result, America now has the biggest prison population in the world, despite not being anywhere near the most-populous country. Holder is proposing a change in this system that is long overdue, and actually rather modest (it would, on average, reduce sentences by a year or so, which is not exactly a radical change).

One thing did catch my eye in the news stories, though, and it might be a good next step for Holder and President Obama to take: the disparity which still exists in crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentencing. An early effort by the Obama White House reduced this gap, when they managed to change the law from a 100-to-1 disparity to only an 18-to-1 disparity. That was progress, to be sure, but there should really be absolutely no disparity in sentencing guidelines. A person convicted of having 500 grams of powder cocaine (which is more than a pound) used to get the same sentence as a person caught with only 5 grams of crack (the same amount as a few sugar packets). That is insane, because pharmacologically the two substances are exactly the same. If these were legal drugs we were talking about, it would be the difference between getting your medication in pill form or as an inhaler. Because it's the same drug -- that's the key. Now, after the first Obama revision, the same sentence is applied to 500 grams of powder cocaine and 28 grams (one ounce) of crack cocaine. That's better, but the sane scientific ratio between the two should be 1-to-1. Think this is an esoteric issue? Think again: crack cocaine dealers are found more in inner cities and powder cocaine dealers out in the suburbs. There's a racial disparity that cannot be ignored in the relative sentences given out for what is essentially the same substance. That is not justice, and it is not fair.

Perhaps Eric Holder is just running down his "to do" list and wants to check things off before leaving his cabinet post. He is already one of the longest-serving attorneys general we've ever had, so no one can say he hasn't done his duty. Perhaps Obama thought he couldn't tackle drug policy reform in his first term, and saved it until he got re-elected. Whatever the reasoning, for the past year both Obama and Holder have taken noticeable steps towards a saner policy on drugs. This is to be applauded, after more than three decades of extremism.

The War On Drugs is a vast and complex enterprise, after all this time. It won't change overnight, no matter who is in charge. It's going to have to be dismantled piece by piece, complete with plenty of political debate. Today represents a solid step in this effort, because mandatory minimums are a big part of why we've got so many people locked up in this country. After instituting the mandatory minimum laws, the prison population exploded. So paring them back is a good idea, for non-violent offenders.

It's a welcome step in the right direction. The next step, however, should be to completely do away with the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. The laws were passed during the height of what was perceived as a crack epidemic, as a knee-jerk response ("lock 'em all up!") to a problem. But the laws have never been fair at all. Even 18-to-1 is still a monumentally stupid policy (although better than 100-to-1, to be sure). So if Eric Holder and Barack Obama are looking around for the next thing to change in federal drug policy, this disparity should be at the top of their list.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


5 Comments on “Eric Holder Takes Another Step In The Right Direction”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    I thought your preference was for AG Holder to resign and have someone else do the heavy lifting actually carrying out the policies of the Obama administration at DoJ...

  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    LizM -

    Yeah, I did feel that way, but he's been doing a lot of things right recently...

    The interview I was talking about is in the New Yorker -- it's interesting, but long. Mostly talks about voting rights.

    I can dig up the link if you can't find it, it's worth reading.


  3. [3] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I'll check out the interview on the weekend ...

  4. [4] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    AG Holder is a very decent guy.

    He has a portrait of Bobby Kennedy hanging over his desk at Justice, watching over him, as it were ...

  5. [5] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    LizM -

    Yeah, like I said, my opinion of the man is changing...

    ... as long as he keeps up the good work, mind you.



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