Drug reform policy experts and prisoners' rights groups are expressing cautious hope about Attorney General Eric Holder's Monday announcement that he will cut mandatory minimum sentencing for drug cases, declaring that while the steps don't go far enough, they do reflect important gains.
Addressing the American Bar Association's Annual Meeting, Holder announced Monday he will use his power as attorney general to mandate that prosecutors stop enforcing mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug cases and provide more flexibility for judges, allowing them to avoid mandatory minimums in some cases.
Drug law experts say that this is a positive but limited step forward. "The concern is that even though the Attorney General will be issuing these directions to revise charging practices, success will depend on prosecutors on the local level exercising that discretion," Kara Dansky, senior counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, told Common Dreams. "That remains to be seen."
Holder also vocalized his support for two prison reform bills currently in Congress, also aimed at rolling back draconian sentencing and hastening the release of some people who are incarcerated under nonviolent charges.
“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” he declared. "We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation."
"It's too little too late, but it's still incredibly significant," Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told Common Dreams. "There was no mention of clemency or pardons for all those who are currently incarcerated. It would have been good for him to include specific comments about allowing Washington and Colorado to proceed with their efforts to legally regulate marijuana."
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"These very late-coming and extremely moderate reforms come from the pressure that social movements put on power," Isaac Ontiveros, organizer with prison abolition organization Critical Resistance and the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, told Common Dreams.
Ontiveros, one of many organizing direct support for California prisoners currently on hunger strike, says Holder's comments reflect a shifting debate. "I think that pointing out the devastation that the courts have wrought for people in the prison industrial complex has been a point of organizing for a lot of people for a long time," declared Ontiveros. "This is a reflection of a change in public opinion and a rising tide of activism among prisoners here in California and their families."
The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world, representing 5 percent of the global population but locking up a quarter of the world's prisoners. Since 1980, the federal prison population has soared almost 800 percent, disproportionately locking up people of color, with one in three black men facing imprisonment within their lifetimes, according to the Bureau of Justice statistics.
Mandatory minimum sentencing policies—along with systemic racial bias and class inequality from policing to courtroom practices to school-to-prison pipelines—have played a key role in boosting incarceration rates for low-income communities of color.
"The system is crumbling under the weight of its own violence," declared Ontiveros.