Eric Holder Is Pushing Sentencing Reform as He Prepares to Leave the Obama Administration

The attorney general also fielded questions on the new immigration order, marijuana, and the Islamic State, at the National Press Club on Tuesday.

Attorney General Eric Holder speaks on criminal justice and sentencing reform at the National Press Club on February 17, 2015 in Washington, D.C.
National Journal
Feb. 17, 2015, 10:07 a.m.

With his ten­ure near­ing its end, At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er pushed for policy changes to avoid man­dat­ory-min­im­um sen­tences for less­er drug charges, dur­ing a speech at the Na­tion­al Press Club Tues­day.

Hold­er has been press­ing sen­ten­cing re­form since 2013, when he in­tro­duced the “Smart on Crime” ini­ti­at­ive to re­duce sen­ten­cing for low-level, non­vi­ol­ent drug of­fend­ers. He backed the suc­cess of the policy based on a drop from 64 per­cent to 51 per­cent in fed­er­ally charged drug-traf­fick­ing of­fenses car­ry­ing a “man­dat­ory-min­im­um.”

“While old habits are hard to break, these num­bers show that a dra­mat­ic shift is un­der­way in the mind-set of pro­sec­utors hand­ling non­vi­ol­ent drug of­fenses. I be­lieve we have taken steps to in­sti­tu­tion­al­ize this fairer, more prac­tic­al ap­proach such that it will en­dure for years to come,” Hold­er said Tues­day.

Many Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats in Con­gress sup­port some ver­sion of crim­in­al-justice re­form, al­though to dif­fer­ent de­grees. The Smarter Sen­ten­cing Act, which would re­duce man­dat­ory-min­im­ums for some drug of­fend­ers, passed out of the Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee in Janu­ary 2014 with broad bi­par­tis­an sup­port. However, it’s now less likely that any sweep­ing re­form on man­dat­ory-min­im­ums will hap­pen any time soon, as new Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Chair­man Chuck Grass­ley has cited them as one of the causes of re­duced crime rates across the coun­try over the past sev­er­al dec­ades.

Dur­ing the event’s ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sion, Hold­er also ad­dressed the Texas fed­er­al Dis­trict Court judge’s de­cision to halt the im­ple­ment­a­tion of Pres­id­ent Obama’s im­mig­ra­tion policy.

“We are still in the pro­cess of look­ing at the opin­ion and try­ing to de­cide what steps we make next. The so­li­cit­or gen­er­al will ul­ti­mately make that de­cision in con­sult with me,” Hold­er said. “It is a de­cision by one fed­er­al Dis­trict Court judge. … This, I would view as an in­ter­im step in a pro­cess that has more to play out.”

He also fielded ques­tions on Is­lam­ic State mil­it­ants, par­tic­u­larly on how best to refer to them, a top­ic on which Re­pub­lic­ans have cri­ti­cized Obama.

“We spend more time talk­ing about what do you call it versus what do you do about it,” Hold­er said, re­fer­ring to the use of the phrases Is­lam­ic ex­trem­ism or rad­ic­al Is­lam. “I’m not sure an aw­ful lot is gained by how we say it. It doesn’t have an im­pact on “¦ the policies we put in place.”

On marijuana, Hold­er wel­comed con­gres­sion­al hear­ings to re­view the clas­si­fic­a­tion of marijuana un­der fed­er­al law. Cur­rently, marijuana is a Sched­ule 1 drug, pla­cing it in the most dan­ger­ous of five cat­egor­ies.

“This is a top­ic that ought to be en­gaged in by our na­tion, in­formed by the ex­per­i­ences we see in Col­or­ado, Wash­ing­ton.” Hold­er said. “There is, I think, a le­git­im­ate de­bate to be had on both sides of that ques­tion on where marijuana should be in terms of schedul­ing.”

Hold­er, who has been at­tor­ney gen­er­al since the be­gin­ning of Obama’s pres­id­ency, an­nounced his re­tire­ment last Septem­ber and is now wait­ing for the Sen­ate to con­firm Lor­etta Lynch to suc­ceed him be­fore step­ping down. Lynch is ex­pec­ted to be con­firmed in early March.

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