Right and Left Praise Eric Holder’s Drug-Sentencing Plan, Up to a Point

Critics say Washington lags behind state-level innovations that are saving money and reducing crime

  • Share
  • Read Later
Stephen Lam / REUTERS

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks on stage during the annual meeting of the American Bar Association in San Francisco, California August 12, 2013.

Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement on Monday that the Justice Department would try to ease America’s overcrowded federal prisons, in part by reducing mandatory drug sentences, was cheered by both liberals and conservatives who think the U.S. imprisons too many people for too long. But Holder was also criticized for arriving late to an issue that the states have pioneered for years.

During a speech at an American Bar Association conference, Holder unveiled a plan to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug-related crimes. Holder also said the Justice Department would consider releasing elderly prisoners and revamping compassionate-release policies. “By reserving the most severe penalties for serious, high-level or violent drug traffickers, we can better promote public safety, deterrence and rehabilitation — while making our expenditures smarter and more productive,” Holder said.

Holder’s plan won applause both from liberals who claim that harsh sentencing perpetuates a “cradle-to-prison pipeline” among racial minorities, along with conservatives looking for ways to reduce federal spending.

“It is potentially a very significant shift in policy,” Bill Piper, the director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, a left-leaning group that favors legalized marijuana, tells TIME. “And one that would save taxpayers money and increase public safety.”

(VIDEO: Legalizing Marijuana and Other Ways the U.S. and Mexico Can Win the Drug War)

“It’s a step in the right direction, though about five years too late,” says Grover Norquist, the ardently anti-tax president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform. “Does it make sense to have a 70-year-old bank robber still in prison? At what point does keeping a guy in prison actually help? You want people in prison because they’re a threat to others, not because you’re mad at them.”

Norquist is a leader of the Right on Crime, a group that has approached criminal-justice reform from a conservative perspective. Another leader of the group, the conservative activist Richard Viguerie, recently wrote that “the entire criminal-justice system is another government-spending program” riddled with “excessive and unwise spending.”

The costs certainly are high. Over 219,000 inmates are held in federal prisons, 47% of them for drug offenses, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Most federal prisons operate at 40% above capacity, Holder said on Monday. That costs taxpayers dearly at a moment of budget shortfalls: over $28,000 per year per inmate.

Under the new policy, judges have more leeway when sentencing nonviolent drug offenders without ties to large-scale organizations, gangs and drug cartels. If a defendant is charged with selling a controlled substance, they will be charged based on the nature of their crime; not forced to serve a specific amount of time. Currently, there is a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for possession of 28 g, or about an ounce, of crack cocaine.

While drug-policy reformers cheered Holder’s speech, Piper also noted that the attorney general was catching up with a movement already under way around the nation.

“The states have been leading on this issue for years,” Piper says. Viguerie echoed that criticism: “By waiting to take up criminal-justice reform until almost a year into his second term, Holder is playing catch-up and has little credibility on this issue,” he said in a statement.

It’s no surprise that states would lead the way on this issue: state prisons house about 1.3 million people, or 86% of the U.S. prison population, putting strain on their reduced budgets. In California, overcrowding is so severe that last week the Supreme Court ordered the state to release more than 9,000 inmates.

Texas is credited with pioneering a statewide reform movement in 2007, when legislators decided against building several new prisons and instead shifted nonviolent offenders to prison alternatives and spent more than $200 million on antirecidivism programs. The state hopes to save $2 billion as a result, even as its crime rate has fallen to 1960s levels (although its prison population remains the nation’s highest).

In all, 27 states have now experimented with reforms, ranging from reclassifying some offenses as misdemeanors rather than felonies to providing better substance-abuse and mental-health treatment. Critical to the political durability of these reforms is the fact that all but three of the reformist states have experienced a drop in their crime rate, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts Public Safety Performance Project.

Holder’s move comes weeks ahead of a planned Senate hearing on a bill sponsored by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy and Republican Senator Rand Paul, which also seeks to lessen mandatory minimum sentencing. Also before the Senate is the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would lower mandatory minimums and give judges more flexibility in imposing sentences for drug offenses. That bill too has bipartisan sponsorship, having been introduced by Democratic Senator Dick Durbin and GOP Senator Mike Lee.

MORE: Majority of Americans Support Legalization of Marijuana

29 comments
amyray007
amyray007

If only it were true!  Seems that Mr. Holder is great at saying all the RIGHT things and yet never following through with ACTIONS. This was over ONE YEAR AGO! and still, no one is getting out of prison, including the elderly.  My friend, Mary Ritcherson was told by her case manager and the Warden that she fit the criteria perfectly.  They thought she would be home before Xmas of last year.  We were all excited - she is over 65 and has served 25 years for "conspiracy" in a case where she was the minor participant. All the men who committed the crime are already home and have been for 10 years.  And yet, Mary is still waiting for her "compassionate release" which has been anything but!  About a month ago, she was told, AGAIN, that the prison needed a release address on her "today."  leading her to believe, once again, that her release was imminent.  and yet, NOTHING EVER HAPPENS.  We are beginning to wonder what the motivation is to PRETEND as if something is being done to ease overcrowding and fix a problem that so many agree needs focus, when in fact, it appears as if these speeches and ideas are nothing more than empty meaningless words that garner false praise.  It's politics at its worst. 

Lisa@abc
Lisa@abc

It is about time! People in prison for drugs and are non violent should not face such strict sentences. People that are addicted to drugs need help not punishment. I know because I was addicted to meth for years and years and I did 3 1/2 years in prison, I completed the drug program while doing my time. I have been clean for 10 years now and proud of it. I am thankful I got caught as it saved my life but even 3 1/2 years was a long time. I needed treatment not punishment and trust me I got punished every single day doing time. There are people in prison just like me but are in for far longer because of  mandatory minimum sentences that are outrageous. There are some really good people in prison that just had an addiction, its very sad. I have a son, married and I now can vote, I pay my tax's and I am a good person. I have an amazing family. so please to all you people out there that judge please think twice before doing so, have an open mind and look at the whole picture

Read more: http://swampland.time.com/2013/08/13/right-and-left-praise-eric-holders-drug-sentencing-plan-up-to-a-point/#ixzz2cdRH32fN

chapalody
chapalody

That's all we need is for those who do crimes to be out on the streets with a shorter sentence so they can repeat the same crimes over and over again until those who supported shorter sentences get it in their heads they were wrong in the first place. Hasn't releasing immigrants for crimes in this country taught Holder anything. How many of those immigrants released have gone and committed a more serious crime. People aren't in prison because someone is mad at them. Their there for a reason and it was they who gave the authorites the reason to put them there. No one pulled them off the street and said I'm mad at you and your going to prison.

Hermione
Hermione

It is about time!!!!

This stupid war on drugs has been nothing more than a war on the taxpayers, as well as a war on decency and common sense.

Long sentences are for hardened, violent, unrepentent criminals - enough said.

rosebud638
rosebud638

Is Mr. Holder just trying to add to the Democratic voter base? No doubt released drug dealers will vote Democrat.

ChristopherGood
ChristopherGood

Tyrants live for evil, what is a crime? if a crime is the violation of law then it is an abominable, evil, awful thing to hide Jews from Hitler, and it is noble and good to gas them. In fact, law is meaningless, law is confusion, law is the devil in disguise. Good people need no laws, and so it is the duty of society to only enforce what is factually right and wrong in the sense of having to do something and needing to have some sort of society in the first place! When a person takes a drug into their system they are simply turning their brain on electrically to function a certain way, and some drugs are vastly healthy and make life better, not worse, for a vast majority of users. These drugs are psychedelics and cannabis. When cars are criminalized and driving is a black market activity you better believe people will jump on the autobahn without training and wreck, and that is the fault of prohibition, not cars. Marijuana is a part of religion, lsd is a part of religion, to deny people the right to enter into divine states of joy that DO NOT HAVE SIDE EFFECTS OR ANY ADDICTIVE POTENTIAL WHATSOEVER - is fundamentally DESTROYING SOCIETY ITSELF from the inside out. LSD came to set us free and teach us how to love each other, LSD is the spirit of Christ. If one takes more than they can handle that is the fault of LACK OF EDUCATION AND PROHIBITION,  it is not harmful to start out with 25 ug , for that would be about as strong as 2 or 3 martinis, but if someone takes it on the black market it may b e 200 ug and they may b e one with the universe and not ready to handle that amazing grace and peace of mind, and flip out in fear. That is not the drugs fault,  drugs are safer than guns. IMAGINE A WAR ON GUNS, think for yourself, they sell drugs on the black market to fund terrorism around the world, cia and etc, wake up, its a proven fact. Legalize freedom.

The only true law is "do unto others as you would have them do unto you' the only drug crime would be , giving it to a minor without th e consent of the parent, or dosing someone without their consent. Drug use or sale is free will, its less harmful than watching horror movies.  If we are talking about the safe and healthy drugs anyway, why use liquor or heroin, they're both equally vile 

ThomasHall
ThomasHall

First, keep things in perspective. It was the Nixon-era to present failed $1 trillion+ "War on Drugs" used to target the anti-Nixon youth and the failed $1 trillion+ "War On Crime" that targeted blacks and Hispanics that exploded out prison population from 200,000 in 1971, or about the same as the current federal prison population, to 2.2 million with another five million on probation or parole.

The GOP have been the prison profiteers growing their private profitable corporate prisons like Corrections Corp. of America and profited from militarizing our police forces nationally with all the multi-billion-dollar weapons, equipment, uniforms, communications, training and bogus, failed anti-drug programs like DARE. Bigoted Americans cannot stand given food stamps, rent subsidies, job training to poor blacks and whites, but have no problem spending $30,000 or more to house those they deem unworthy.

America's legal systems have joined the ranks of institutions that are "the best that money can buy" like our healthcare, educational systems, and our democracy.

Notice that slimeball like Norquest never mention the GOP-created corporate tax welfare for the rich who created the vast array of tax loopholes and subsidies, reduced rates for the rich like "carried interest" or lowered wealth income dividend rates both at 15%. They never mention the hundreds of billions of tax revenues lost to offshore tax dodges by thousands of corporations. With all the reduced tax revenues on the rich over decades, it should not come as a surprise that our National Debt, less than $800 billion through Carter, exploded under Reagan who tripled it, GHW Bush who added to it and GW Bush who more than doubled it yet again.

terryclifton1
terryclifton1

Maybe now Obama and Holder can put their money where their mouth is and stop raiding Medicinal Marijuana Clinics in California. Which has gone on for the last 6 years with impunity. 



terryclifton1
terryclifton1

The idea that our government can imprison someone for the sale, manufacturing, and distribution of drugs that are deemed illegal by our Puritan Styled Government has been going on for way to long, and at a cost of billions of tax dollars each year. People who have shown no act of violence have been locked away with some of the most brutal killers in our nation's history. These people are raped and assaulted once they walk into prison, and come out hardened themselves. This common sense approach is long overdue. End the War on Drugs!!! 


MrObvious
MrObvious

It's a reality moment. You don't fix crime by incarcerating everyone for the slightest infraction. Desperate people are not deterred by draconian laws created by people with little idea of the consequences and fearful of something they don't bother prove statistically.

I mean if we sit down and use real empirical data, both historic and recent as to what work and what doesn't, then the packed sardine, dungeon and throw away the key doesn't work. Nor does capital punishment. And if you can't prove if something work through data then discard and find what does.

But somehow we're still trapped in the primitive notion that if we only shame, debase and incarcerate as many as possible we can fix a problem that starts well before the crime took place. As an example to others. Which of course is a lousy method to solve a problem years in the works before the bars slams shut and sometimes even a culmination a slow boiling decade long effect.

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

It's apparently difficult for people to fully comprehend how important this is. It matters not whether it's a DOJ idea or a State idea and sniping over timing is just plain stupid. For decades, the most reliable way politicians could pander for votes is to promise to lock up more of "those" people. The strategy was always unsustainable, but the fact that people can reliably talk about reversing the trend without inviting virulent attacks is HUGE. I never would have believed I'd see it in my lifetime.

Lisa@abc
Lisa@abc

@Hermione It is about time! People in prison for drugs and are non violent should not face such strict sentences. People that are addicted to drugs need help not punishment. I know because I was addicted to meth for years and years and I did 3 1/2 years in prison, I completed the drug program while doing my time. I have been clean for 10 years now and proud of it. I am thankful I got caught as it saved my life but even 3 1/2 years was a long time. I needed treatment not punishment and trust me I got punished every single day doing time. There are people in prison just like me but are in for far longer because of  mandatory minimum sentences that are outrageous. There are some really good people in prison that just had an addiction, its very sad. I have a son, married and I now can vote, I pay my tax's and I am a good person. I have an amazing family. so please to all you people out there that judge please think twice before doing so, have an open mind and look at the whole picture.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@Hermione You are correct as a 30 year police veteran i totally agree with that statement.

cleverlyc
cleverlyc

@rosebud638 Why shouldn't they? The conservatives were willing to lock them up and throw away the key. Nothing says "I don't care who you vote for' like locking someone up and forgetting about them.

And on OUR dime, too.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@PaulDirks"I never would have believed I'd see it in my lifetime."

Sort of like the fiscal destruction of the middle class. In this case, call it shock therapy.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@PaulDirks it is important pauly, you are not the only one who can comprehend that. But reality is another thing all you can hope for is it may happen in your life time, but do not hold your breath. And Eric Holder has his agenda  which is not what you may think coming from the lame duck attorney general and his man in the white house.

rettamichaels
rettamichaels

@SophiaGraham does your friend's mother work at a truck stop in the back lot, and moan like she's kicked a rock? If so, I heard her making her $78 the other night! 

gritsforbreakfast
gritsforbreakfast

@Openminded1 @PaulDirks @cleverlyc @rosebud638 This comment was completely FOS. Don't know about other states but in Texas felons can vote as soon as they're "off paper," meaning after parole is over or, if they serve their full sentence, as soon as they're released. It is indeed automatic and there's no process they have to go through. Just plain ignorant to claim otherwise, no matter how certain you pretend to sound.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@PaulDirks @Openminded1 @cleverlyc @rosebud638 You are the one misinformed Pauly no state allows convicted felons fresh out of prison the right to vote. they have to go thru the state to reinstate there rights and that is a process that is not automatic and takes a while. plus half the dirt bags they are planning to let out will not even try. You are not a lawyer obviously and not a cop. read and research before you talk BS,