Holder Seeks to Reform Harsh Drug Sentencing, Incarceration Laws

August 13, 2013
Guest Post

by Nkechi Taifa, senior policy analyst for civil and justice reform at the Open Society Foundations and convener of the Washington-based Justice Roundtable

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced significant steps today at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco to correct the deepest, costliest and worst aspects in our criminal justice system. The reforms he outlined in remarks entitled, Smart on Crime, were a long time coming for the criminal justice advocacy community.

Although Congress recently approved legislation to help prisoners re-enter society and to reduce the infamous disparity between crack and powder cocaine, previous Presidents and Congress have never addressed the root causes of mass incarceration. These unjust laws and policies that drive up the U.S. prison population include inflexible front-end decisions that define who goes to prison and for how long, as well as stubborn back-end choices that impede early release.

Today, in the fifth decade of both the March on Washington and the War on Drugs, the Attorney General has ushered in a revolutionary moment by advancing the policy discussion around widespread incarceration that has cost billions of dollars without making society any safer, and reducing flaws of a system that sends too many people of color to prison.

The policies outlined in Holder’s speech will recalibrate the federal criminal justice system by correcting obstacles, inefficiencies and inequities and transforming law enforcement strategies so they alleviate, rather than exacerbate, harsh punishment.

These reforms include rethinking mandatory minimum sentences, confronting the school to prison pipeline, intensifying indigent defense services, expanding compassionate release, enhancing diversion programs, review of unnecessary collateral consequences, increasing victim services, and a federal focus on major serious lawbreakers rather than bit players.

These comprehensive reforms, among others, represent a virtual wish list the criminal justice community has been advocating for years. If this shift takes place, President Obama and Attorney General Holder will have etched a lasting legacy that will tackle racial disparities, shrink mass incarceration, reduce costs and, most importantly, bring justice to a deeply flawed criminal justice system.