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‘Smart on Crime’ Initiative: Holder Seeks to Cut “Draconian” Minimum Mandatory Drug Sentences

US Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Monday that the Justice Department will seek to reduce “draconian” minimum mandatory prison sentencing for certain non-violent drug offenders.

“We must never stop being tough on crime. But we must also be smarter on crime. Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” Holder told the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates in San Francisco, adding that excessive incarceration in the ‘War on Drugs’ has been “ineffective and unsustainable.”

Holder also acknowledged the “shameful” racial disparities in drug sentencing.

Central to the new government policy, called the Smart on Crime initiative, is a plan to stop detailing the quantity of illicit narcotics low-level, non-violent offenders who are not connected to large gangs or drug cartels are caught with, an effort to skirt what he called “draconian” federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Going forward, such offenders “will be charged with offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals and drug kingpins,” Holder said.

Holder acknowledged that “unwarranted (racial) disparities are far too common” in the US criminal justice system, echoing President Obama’s comments in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict two months ago that “there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws– everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.”

The attorney general said that America “must confront the reality” that “people of color… often face harsher punishment than their (white) peers.” Holder called this “shameful” and “unacceptable.”

One glaring example of this disparity is the difference in sentencing for powdered versus rock, or crack, cocaine. Despite the 2010 passage of the so-called Fair Sentencing Act, federal sentencing for crack cocaine is 18 times as severe as for powdered cocaine, a pharmacologically identical substance. Before the FSA, the disparity was 100:1. In other words, the prison sentence for 100 grams of powdered cocaine was the same as for one gram of crack.

Noting that the US, which has only five percent of the world’s population, has a quarter of its prisoners, Holder said the nation’s prison population, which now exceeds two million individuals, has increased by 800 percent since 1980. He also pointed out that nearly half of the inmates incarcerated in federal prisons are locked up for drug-related offenses.

Holder also wants to reduce the nation’s prison population by instituting a compassionate early release program for elderly inmates deemed no longer dangerous and by promoting drug treatment programs as an alternative to imprisonment.

While Holder addressed the racial disparities in drug sentencing, he stopped short of using the term ‘mass incarceration’ to describe the phenomenon. He also did not mention the role of the prison-industrial complex, the private prison corporations which profit from government incarceration of more than 120,000 mostly non-violent offenders.

Holder’s potentially game-changing remarks came just days after he said acknowledged serious shortcomings in the decades-old ‘War on Drugs.’

“The ‘War on Drugs’ is now 30, 40 years old,” Holder said during an NPR interview last Wednesday. “There have been a lot of unintended consequences. There’s been a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color.”

There has been more than a ‘decimation,’ which literally means the loss of one out of every 10 individuals. For example, as prison spending has soared at six times the rate of spending on higher education, black men in cities such as Chicago are more likely to go to prison than to college. More black men are serving time in Illinois prisons for drug offenses than are enrolled in undergraduate degree programs in state universities, according to Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander.

Civil liberties groups hailed Holder’s announcement.

“Today, the attorney general is taking crucial steps to tackle our bloated federal mass incarceration crisis, and we are thrilled by these long-awaited developments,” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said in a statement.

“For years, our justice system has treated dangerous criminals in the same manner as non-violent men and women,” Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement. “This has created a modern-day caste system in America, where millions of people– mostly African Americans, Latinos and low-income whites– are marked with a scarlet letter than erects permanent barriers to getting a job or an education and to reintegrate into society.”

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