Eric Holder gets it right!
Editors Baltimore Times | 8/16/2013, 6 a.m.
Attorney General Eric Holder’s overhaul of federal drug prosecutions concedes a fact that the public grasped long ago: The nation’s 42-year-old “war on drugs” has devolved into an overwrought, unaffordable policy breakdown that helped turn America’s prison system into a vast human warehouse.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world— more than seven times that of our Western European counterparts— and nearly half of all federal prisoners are doing time for drug-related offenses.
Something has to give, and Holder’s decision to back off of long minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders with no ties to organized crime is a logical place for him to start.
“The course we are on is far from sustainable,” he told the American Bar Association, in announcing the policy change this week. We agree.
Holder pointed out that states have already curtailed their prison-building binges, turning instead to treatment and better supervision to address drug offenders. It’s notable that Holder surprisingly singled out Texas for praise, citing the state’s success last year in reducing the prison population by 5,000 inmates through treatment and parole policies. Texas has a well-earned “law and order” reputation but in this case Holder was right. Both taxpayers and rehabilitated offenders benefit from reducing the prison population. Additionally, it gives these non-violent offenders the opportunity to divorce themselves from the drug culture and begin real positive contributions to society.
Holder is also throwing his support behind bipartisan efforts in Congress to give judges discretion in sentencing low-level drug offenders. The unlikely pair of Senators Rand Paul, R-Kentucky; and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont; have proposed a bill to provide a “safety valve” so judges can impose sentences below mandatory minimums in appropriate cases. These kinds of reforms are headed in the right direction.
Starting with President Richard Nixon’s 1971 declaration that illicit drugs were “public enemy No. 1,” the law enforcement inertia has reached breathtaking proportions. While it became politically fashionable to pass tough-on-crime laws in the 1980s and 1990s, the unintended result is that state prison populations have quadrupled and the federal system has grown by 800 percent.
Baltimore’s generational fight against addiction and the fact that thousands of residents have been incarcerated because of marijuana use could be substantially impacted in a positive way by Holder’s pending mandate. This change could be a watershed moment for a large percentage of urban Americans.
Today, the federal government must also reckon with the parade of states passing medical marijuana laws (20 so far) or legalizing personal use of the weed altogether (Colorado and Washington). While pot sales have become regulated commerce in some states, marijuana remains a dangerous Schedule 1 drug in the federal criminal code, creating a lingering policy headache for Holder’s Justice Department.
More mainstream voices are calling for careful reconsideration. Doing his own analysis of the research, well-known and respected CNN chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, declared recently that the public has been “terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years” about marijuana’s dangers and potential benefits.
That’s not Holder’s fight, yet. However, he is taking on what is within his immediate authority by slowing down the flow of convicts into the nation’s prison complex. That’s a great place to start.