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

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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.”

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“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.

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