The Attorney General of the United States all but announced the end of the drug war today.
"As the so-called 'war on drugs' enters its fifth decade, we need to ask whether it, and the approaches that comprise it, have been truly effective," he said. "Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason."
He acknowledged that mandatory minimum sentences were having a disastrous effect, incarcerating huge numbers of people for low-level, nonviolent crimes.
Said Holder: "They do not serve public safety. They have had a disabling effect on communities. And they are ultimately counterproductive."
He said it was wrong to give nonviolent drug offenders "excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins."
He added that "widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable. It imposes a significant economic burden -- totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone -- and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate."
Some of those costs have to do with racial disparities, and Holder addressed this point too, noting "that young black and Latino men are disproportionately likely to become involved in our criminal justice system -- as victims as well as perpetrators." What's more, he said, "People of color often face harsher punishments than their peers."
So not only did Holder repudiate the policy of mandatory minimums for drug offenders. He instructed every federal prosecutor to omit mentioning the amount of drugs that a small-time nonviolent drug offender with no big rap sheet was in possession of. This is a way to get around the mandatory minimum sentencing, and while it's not as good as overturning the law, in the current environment, it's one of the most effective sidesteps that the attorney general could take.
He also emphasized that some of these drug offenders would be sent to drug-treatment programs rather than to prison, which is another good thing.
And he tried to crack the school-to-prison pipeline, saying the Justice Department's civil rights division would "confront the 'school-to-prison pipeline' and those zero-tolerance school discipline policies that do not promote safety, and that transform too many educational institutions from doorways of opportunity into gateways to the criminal justice system. A minor school disciplinary offense should put a student in the principal's office and not a police precinct."
Said Holder: "We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate -- not merely to convict, warehouse and forget."
This change in enforcement policy at the Justice Department is a welcome relief, and it's a bold and courageous move by Holder, for which he deserves our thanks.
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