Attorney General Eric Holder Issues Major Sentencing Changes, Begins to Question War on Drugs

Press Release August 11, 2013
Media Contact

<p>Contact: Tommy McDonald: 510-229-5215 or Bill Piper: 202-669-6430</p>

SAN FRANCISCO-In a speech to the American Bar Association today Attorney General Eric Holder announced major federal sentencing changes, including dropping the use of mandatory minimum sentencing in certain drug cases, expediting the release of certain nonviolent elderly prisoners, leaving more offenses to state courts to deal with, and working with Congress to pass bi-partisan sentencing reform.

In the speech Holder said, “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 went on to say, “[T]oo many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.” In an interview with NPR last week Holder said:  “The war on drugs is now 30, 40 years old. There have been a lot of unintended consequences. There’s been a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color.”

“Attorney General Holder should have said years ago what he said today – and he knows it,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “But his speech today is still incredibly significant.  It’s the first time a U.S. Attorney General has spoken so forcefully or offered such a detailed proposal for sentencing reform – and particularly notable that he framed the issue in moral terms.”

“It’s great that Attorney General Holder is condemning the mass incarceration and racial disparities that are the result of the war on drugs,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “We look forward to working with the Department of Justice on implementing a more humane, cost-effective approach to drugs and drug misuse.”

Anthony Papa, media manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, who served 12 years under New York’s Rockefeller drug laws before receiving clemency from the governor, said, “It isn’t clear what the Administration’s policy will mean for people currently behind bars but Obama should use his presidential authority to pardon and, in particular, commute the sentences of people who were charged under the old 100-to-1 crack to powder cocaine ratio. Society would be better served by not locking up people for extraordinarily long sentences for non-violent low level drug offenses. It’s a waste of tax dollars and human lives.”

Holder’s policy shift accelerates the momentum for major criminal justice reform. Several bi-partisan reform bills have been introduced in Congress and a left/right consensus is building. A few months ago, a coalition of over 175 artists, actors, athletes, elected officials and advocates, brought together by hip-hop pioneer Russell Simmons and Dr. Boyce Watkins, presented an open letter to President Obama urging him to tackle mass incarceration and drug policy reform. States have already taken the lead. Voters in Colorado and Washington, for instance, voted to end marijuana prohibition last November. Senator Patrick Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said he wants to have hearings on both sentencing reform and resolving the state/federal conflict over marijuana.

The Drug Policy Alliance urges the Obama Administration to support bi-partisan sentencing reform legislation in Congress, such as:

The Obama Administration could also take more direct steps, such as:

“The U.S. is at a pivotal moment right now where fundamental change to our bloated, racially-biased criminal justice system is possible,” said Piper. “But change isn’t inevitable; it will take significant leadership by Attorney General Holder, President Obama, and both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.”

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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