Eric Holder’s War on Drug Sentences — a Bright Spot in Obama’s Second-Term Legacy?

The attorney general is on a mission to reform decades-old drug policies that majorities agree need changing.

National Journal
Brian Resnick
See more stories about...
Brian Resnick
March 13, 2014, 6:44 a.m.

Eric Hold­er’s last years as at­tor­ney gen­er­al will be marked by drugs.

Just this week, Hold­er has taken sig­ni­fic­ant ac­tion on both sides of the drug war, call­ing for a fight to curb heroin-re­lated over­doses and to also lim­it the sen­tences im­posed on drug of­fend­ers.

We knew this activ­ity was com­ing. Hold­er is mak­ing good on his “Smart on Crime” ini­ti­at­ive, which launched last spring with the un­der­ly­ing philo­sophy that “we can­not pro­sec­ute our way to be­com­ing a safer na­tion.” To Hold­er, and to many Re­pub­lic­ans as well, the stat­ist­ics on crime in Amer­ica are clear and scream­ing for an­swers. The United States has one of the highest per cap­ita pris­on pop­u­la­tions in the world, and a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of in­mates are Afric­an-Amer­ic­an.

In Au­gust, Hold­er an­nounced that low-level drug of­fend­ers (not con­nec­ted to or­gan­ized crime) would no longer be charged with crimes that im­pose man­dat­ory min­im­ums. Today, he sought to take that a step fur­ther, ad­voc­at­ing to the U.S. Sen­ten­cing Com­mis­sion a de­crease in min­im­um sen­tences for a wide range of drug of­fenses.

The pro­pos­al would re­duce drug-re­lated pris­on sen­tences by an av­er­age of 11 months (from 62 months to 51 months), de­creas­ing the fed­er­al in­mate pop­u­la­tion by 6,550 over five years. Half of Amer­ic­an in­mates are serving drug sen­tences, and those in­mates are dis­pro­por­tion­ately Afric­an-Amer­ic­an.

Re­du­cing the pris­on pop­u­la­tion by 6,550 would mean, on av­er­age, a sav­ings of $169,238,900 a year, per data from the Urb­an In­sti­tute. Money aside, the hu­man-in­terest case for sen­ten­cing re­form is easy to make. 

“This over­re­li­ance on in­car­cer­a­tion is not just fin­an­cially un­sus­tain­able; it comes with hu­man and mor­al costs that are im­possible to cal­cu­late,” Hold­er said in pre­pared re­marks to the com­mis­sion.

The Sen­ten­cing Com­mis­sion pub­lishes the guidelines that fed­er­al judges fol­low in sen­ten­cing cases. It will vote on new guidelines in April. Hold­er’s ad­vocacy rep­res­ents a grow­ing push on both the left and right for pris­on re­form. Last week, at the Con­ser­vat­ive Polit­ic­al Ac­tion Con­fer­ence, a pan­el fea­tur­ing Texas Gov. Rick Perry was un­an­im­ous in its en­thu­si­asm for pris­on re­form.

“The idea that we lock people up, throw them away, and nev­er give them a chance of re­demp­tion is not what Amer­ica is about,” Perry said. “Be­ing able to give someone a second chance is very im­port­ant.”

The changes Hold­er can make are ones par­tis­ans can agree on. In 2012, Pew found that 84 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans agreed with the state­ment, “Some of the money that we are spend­ing on lock­ing up low-risk, non­vi­ol­ent in­mates should be shif­ted to strength­en­ing com­munity cor­rec­tions pro­grams like pro­ba­tion and pa­role,” in­clud­ing 77 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans.

Sixty-nine per­cent of Amer­ic­ans agreed with the state­ment, “One out of every 100 Amer­ic­an adults is in pris­on. That’s too many, and it costs too much.”

As policy turns to leg­acy, this Justice De­part­ment’s ac­tions on drug crimes may just be­come a bright leg­acy in a fraught second term for this ad­min­is­tra­tion.

What We're Following See More »
STAYING RELEVANT TIL 2020?
Rubio May Run for Reelection After All
7 hours ago
WHY WE CARE
SOCIAL ISSUES ROIL CONGRESS AGAIN
LGBT Amendment Sinks Energy and Water Approps
9 hours ago
THE LATEST

The House voted down the otherwise uncontroversial Energy and Water appropriations bill Thursday after Democrats succeeded in attaching an amendment affirming LGBT job discrimination protections for military contractors. More than 40 Republicans supported the amendment, but when it came to vote on the bill, 130 Republicans joined all but six Democrats to sink the bill. Speaker Paul Ryan said Democrats voting against the bill after securing the amendment shows their intention was to scuttle the process. Democrats, however, blamed other so-called poison-pill amendments for their votes against the bill. Nonetheless, Ryan said he intends to continue the appropriations process.

AKNOWLEDGING THE INEVITABLE
UAW: Time to Unite Behind Hillary
9 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"It's about time for unity," said UAW President Dennis Williams. "We're endorsing Hillary Clinton. She's gotten 3 million more votes than Bernie, a million more votes than Donald Trump. She's our nominee." He called Sanders "a great friend of the UAW" while saying Trump "does not support the economic security of UAW families." Some 28 percent of UAW members indicated their support for Trump in an internal survey.

Source:
SCREENING DELAYS
70,000 Have Missed American Airlines Flights This Year
10 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Airport screening delays have caused more than 70,000 American Airlines customers and 40,000 checked bags to miss their flights this year, an executive for the airline told a U.S. congressional subcommittee on Thursday. A shortage of staff and a surge in air travelers have created a nightmare scenario for the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), with airport wait times in places like Chicago stretching beyond two hours."

Source:
AP KEEPING COUNT
Trump Clinches Enough Delegates for the Nomination
11 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Donald Trump on Thursday reached the number of delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination for president, completing an unlikely rise that has upended the political landscape and sets the stage for a bitter fall campaign. Trump was put over the top in the Associated Press delegate count by a small number of the party's unbound delegates who told the AP they would support him at the convention."

Source:
×