Holder’s Empty Gesture on Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentences

 

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“How have they not mandatory-minimumed our terms yet?”

 

Attorney General Eric Holder announced some changes to DOJ policy in hopes of fixing our prison system that incarcerates more citizens than any country in the world.

“It’s clear – as we come together today – that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.”

Holder plans to let the Federal courts chill a bit on non-violent drug cases by letting State courts try more cases, pushing more cases to drug courts that use means other than prison, and allowing early release for some elderly or dying inmates. The most interesting policy change is to the mandatory minimum sentences that handcuff Federal prosecutors and Judges from deciding sentences on a case-by-case basis. Holder’s new policy will keep his Federal Prosecutors from mentioning drug-amounts in non-violent cases, which will avoid triggering mandatory minimums that often result in draconian multi-year sentences for minor crimes.

An Attorney General acknowledging the inherent absurdity of our penal system is a HUGE deal, but unfortunately it might just prove to be lip-service. The DOJ can’t pass laws, so all the changes are purely administrative slight-of-hand and can be revoked by any future AG. A couple years of new in-house policy won’t change things drastically, but in the mean time Judges and Prosecutors can actually dispense justice rather than dole out pre-determined sentences picked by Congressmen trying to appear “tough on crime”.

While sure to draw controversy, executive actions like this are a million times better than waiting for Congress to pass good law (which would NEVER happen thanks to the very powerful private prison lobby that wants to keep prison beds filled). Still, it would have been nice for Obama and Holder to take the bigger step of ending the unsuccessful and harmful War on Drugs altogether. So while this is a nice gesture, it’s certainly not Hope-y or Change-y enough to make a lasting difference.

Read: U.S. Attorney General To Ease Impact Of Harsh Drug Sentencing Laws | ThinkProgress.