SAN FRANCISCO—Today at the American Bar Association conference here in San Francisco, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a set of new reforms to undo some of the damage caused by federal mandatory minimum laws for drug possession.
In his remarks, he stated that mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, “breed disrespect for the system. When applied indiscriminately, they do not serve public safety. They – and some of the enforcement priorities we have set – have had a destabilizing effect on particular communities, largely poor and of color. And, applied inappropriately, they are ultimately counterproductive."
Holder also cited one of the statistics that my colleagues and I repeat like a mantra: the U.S. has five percent of the world’s population, but nearly 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. He talked about the racial disparities that have resulted from our current drug law enforcement practices. To be honest, it was a little disconcerting to hear DPA talking points coming from the man at the head of our criminal justice system, saying that the system is broken and that we’re paying much too high a price.
I am deeply encouraged by Holder’s remarks acknowledging the devastation caused by the war on drugs. Our system is indeed broken. And it is well past time to fix it.
In his own words: “It’s time. It’s past time.”
He’s right. And he is certainly well-positioned to change things, as the U.S. Attorney General.
However, his speech today left a few things unsaid and undone. I appreciate that he wants to ask tough questions. I have a few for him. One is about marijuana, a word not mentioned once in his talk. When will he talk about marijuana? He shared the stage with U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, notorious for going after some of the best-run, best-regulated medical marijuana programs here in California. Holder can and should add a directive to his prosecutors to respect state laws on marijuana to his directive on mandatory minimums. He should be clear that prosecutors in Washington and Colorado will not go after activities that are legal under state law there.
The second question is whether the President will use his authority to pardon or commute sentences already in effect. He could single-handedly follow through on this analysis of mandatory minimums doing more harm than good by commuting the “counterproductive” sentences of the federal prisoners currently behind bars. Starting with the many people serving those disparate sentences for crack cocaine. That would go a long ways to addressing some of the problems Holder identified.
Holder highlighted some state-level reforms that have been working. One I’d like him to pay some attention to is California SB 649, by San Francisco’s state senator Mark Leno. It allows prosecutors to charge drug possession as a misdemeanor rather than a felony. This is a straight-forward reform that accomplishes some of the changes he talks about. Is Holder going to support reducing criminal penalties for drug possession?
This has been a good week for drug policy reform. CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta apologized for believing the DEA’s science-free position on marijuana and produced an emotional documentary about the benefits of marijuana. A judge in New York declared that stop and frisk practices, which have been ensnaring young people of color for marijuana possession, to be a violation of constitutional rights.
And now the head of the federal criminal justice system is declaring that the war on drugs causes more harm than good. It’s worth doing a little victory dance, before we dive back into the trenches to hold Holder and the Obama Administration to their word on this, push them to commute these counterproductive sentences, lead the effort to reform our drug laws, including mandatory minimums, and finally end the war on drugs.
Laura Thomas is the deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. She directs DPA’s San Francisco office.