by Stephen Wermiel, Professor of Practice, American University Washington College of Law
Attorney General Eric Holder touched off a new chapter in his Justice Department tenure yesterday by unveiling a set of far-reaching and important criminal justice reforms that supporters of the Obama administration have long awaited. Holder’s speech captured the attention and fired up the spirit of an otherwise somewhat lethargic American Bar Association annual meeting in San Francisco. Holder expressed what is likely the strongest, clearest vision yet from the Obama administration and one that his admirers have hoped would be part of his legacy: “Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems, rather than alleviate them.”
Of important note is that a number of the things Holder discussed can and apparently will be done within the Executive Branch and do not require consideration or approval by a Congress incapacitated by partisan gridlock. Specifically, Holder has instructed federal prosecutors to change the way they bring drug charges against individuals who commit low-level offenses and who have no ties to gangs, drug cartels or organized crime. Federal law mandates the use of mandatory minimum prison sentences for some drug crimes, and changing the law would require Congress to act. Holder noted that there is bipartisan support in the Senate to reform mandatory minimums for drug offenses. But Holder can act on his own and now has done so to urge federal prosecutors to exercise discretion by charging different crimes that do not trigger mandatory minimums and that, as Holder said, will better reflect the severity of the misconduct without draconian excessive criminal sentences. This is an important recognition of the major shortcomings of the decades-old war on drugs that has consumed billions of dollars in law enforcement budgets and tens of thousands of lives ruined by prison terms that were out of proportion to the crime or the nature of the individual. Holder also said U.S. attorneys will be urged to make greater use of drug diversion programs as alternatives to incarceration.
Another very important recognition by Holder followed on the heels of President Obama’s remarks on the Trayvon Martin case last month. Holder told the ABA “that young black and Latino men are disproportionately likely to become involved in our criminal justice system – as victims as well as perpetrators.” He added, “We also must confront the reality that – once they’re in that system – people of color often face harsher punishments than their peers.” The racial injustice of the criminal justice system is a subject that needs urgent attention from Holder and other leaders.