Bi-partisan Support Grows In Congress for Overhauling U.S. Drug Laws
In a speech to the American Bar Association today Attorney General Eric Holder is expected to announce major federal sentencing changes, including dropping the use of mandatory minimum sentencing in certain drug cases, expediting the release of certain nonviolent elderly prisoners, leaving more offenses to state courts to deal with, and working with Congress to pass bi-partisan sentencing reform.
In an interview with NPR last week Holder said: “The war on drugs is now 30, 40 years old. There have been a lot of unintended consequences. There’s been a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color.” According to The New York Times, Holder’s speech today will focus on the fact that although the U.S. has only 5 percent of the world’s population, it has almost 25 percent of its prisoners.
“There’s no good reason why the Obama administration couldn’t have done something like this during his first term – and tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of Americans have suffered unjustly as a result of their delay,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “But that said, President Obama and Attorney General Holder deserve credit for stepping out now, and for doing so in a fairly decisive way.”
“Attorney General Holder is clearly right to condemn mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Both he and the president have an opportunity to leave a lasting legacy by securing substantial, long overdue drug policy reform.”
Anthony Papa, media manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, who served 12 years under New York’s Rockefeller drug laws before receiving clemency from the governor, said, “It isn’t clear what the Administration’s policy will mean for people currently behind bars but Obama should use his presidential authority to pardon and, in particular, commute the sentences of people who were charged under the old 100-to-1 crack to powder cocaine ratio. Society would be better served by not locking up people for extraordinarily long sentences for non-violent low level drug offenses. It’s a waste of tax dollars and human lives.”
Holder’s policy shift accelerates the momentum for major criminal justice reform. Several bi-partisan reform bills have been introduced in Congress and a left/right consensus is building. A few months ago, a coalition of over 175 artists, actors, athletes, elected officials and advocates, brought together by hip-hop pioneer Russell Simmons and Dr. Boyce Watkins, presented an open letter to President Obama urging him to tackle mass incarceration and drug policy reform. States have already taken the lead. Voters in Colorado and Washington, for instance, voted to end marijuana prohibition last November. Senator Patrick Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said he wants to have hearings on both sentencing reform and resolving the state/federal conflict over marijuana.
The Drug Policy Alliance urges the Obama Administration to support bi-partisan sentencing reform legislation in Congress, such as:
The Obama Administration could also take more direct steps, such as:
“The U.S. is at a pivotal moment right now where fundamental change to our bloated, racially-biased criminal justice system is possible,” said Piper. “But change isn’t inevitable; it will take significant leadership by Attorney General Holder, President Obama, and both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.”