Drug Policy

Eric Holder's Second Thoughts on Mandatory Minimums

|

The Drug War Chronicle notes that Eric Holder made some semi-encouraging remarks about sentencing reform at a press conference in March 1999, when he was deputy attorney general:

I do not think that we should ever foreclose the possibility that we take a look at how the laws that we have passed are working. I tend to think that mandatory minimum sentences that deal with people who commit violent crimes are almost always good things. I think the concerns are generally raised about mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders. And I think there are some questions that we ought to ask.

I do not go into it with a presumption that they're necessarily bad, but we ought to look at the statistics and see, are we putting in prison, are we using our limited prison space for the kind of people that we want to have there? Are the sentences commensurate with the kind of conduct that puts people in jail for these mandatory minimum sentences?

Those are the kinds of questions I think that we ought to ask. And as thinking legislators on both sides, Republicans and Democrats, liberal and conservative, I would hope that we would ask those questions and then go into it with an open mind.

This is pretty weak stuff, especially 13 years after Congress approved draconian new mandatory minimum sentences, by which time their injustice and inefficiency were abundantly clear, even to lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key criminologists such as John DiIulio. And these days, even Joe Biden, creator of the "drug czar" position and one of the most gung-ho drug warriors in the Democratic Party, concedes the need to trim sentences. As the Chronicle notes, our vice president–elect has signed on to legislation that would eliminate the absurd disparity between crack and cocaine powder sentences, a cause President-elect Obama also supports. That would be a significant reform, albeit two decades late. Holder, despite his support for mandatory minimums in D.C. when he was a U.S. attorney, seems to be on a nearby page when it comes to reducing the sentences for people who don't belong in prison at all. Yay, I guess.