Holder Says Drug Offenders Are Serving 'Draconian' Sentences; Why Won't Obama Let Them Out?



Attorney General Eric Holder's "Smart on Crime" initiative, which he unveiled today during a speech to the American Bar Association, includes several points that will please those of us who believe our criminal justice system is too big, too harsh, and too indiscriminate, starting with Holder's acknowledgement that our criminal justice system is too big, too harsh, and too indiscriminate:

With an outsized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter, and rehabilitate—not merely to warehouse and forget….

Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason….

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….

While the entire U.S. population has increased by about a third since 1980, the federal prison population has grown at an astonishing rate—by almost 800 percent.  

Even though this country comprises just 5 percent of the world's population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world's prisoners….Roughly 40 percent of former federal prisoners—and more than 60 percent of former state prisoners—are rearrested or have their supervision revoked within three years after their release, at great cost to American taxpayers and often for technical or minor violations of the terms of their release.

Some statutes that mandate inflexible sentences—regardless of the individual conduct at issue in a particular case—reduce the discretion available to prosecutors, judges, and juries. Because they oftentimes generate unfairly long sentences, they breed disrespect for the system. When applied indiscriminately, they do not serve public safety. They—and some of the enforcement priorities we have set—have had a destabilizing effect on particular communities, largely poor and of color.

These are welcome words, especially since Holder repeatedly notes the role of "the so-called war on drugs" in the trends he decries. The solutions he proposes include sentencing reform along the lines of legislation co-sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that would give judges more discretion to depart from mandatory minimums in cases involving low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. Holder also has instructed federal prosecutors to use their existing discretion in two ways that could make criminal penalties less unjust:

Federal prosecutors cannot—and should not—bring every case or charge every defendant who stands accused of violating federal law….

I have today mandated a modification of the Justice Department's charging policies so that certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences. They now will be charged with offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins.

Since mandatory minimums are triggered by drug weight, the latter reform entails charging people with offenses involving unspecified amounts of controlled substances. While that change would reduce their prison terms, I'm not sure why it's necessary if U.S. attorneys follow Holder's suggestion that they refrain from prosecuting low-level offenders who don't belong in federal court. The practical impact of this change will depend on details such as what Holder means by "no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels." Many marijuana dealers and pretty much all cocaine and heroin dealers arguably would fail that test. According to a memo that Holder sent to U.S. attorneys today, another requirement is "no significant criminal history." The memo adds that "a significant criminal history will normally be evidenced by three or more criminal history points but may involve fewer or greater depending on the nature of any prior convictions." In practice, a "significant" criminal history can be quite minor: An offense for which a defendant received a 60-day sentence, for instance, counts as two points, so a New Yorker who is caught with more than seven rounds in his gun after getting busted for "public display" of marijuana may be ineligible for Holder's mercy.

This initiative reminds me of the Fair Sentencing Act, which President Obama signed in 2010. Instead of eliminating the senseless sentencing disparity between smoked and snorted cocaine, the law reduced it, which surely was better than nothing but not quite as good as one might reasonably have expected given the bipartisan consensus that crack penalties were out of whack. (The law passed Congress almost unanimously.) Holder cites the Fair Sentencing Act as evidence that his boss has "felt strongly" about criminal justice reform "ever since his days as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago." The other example of Obama's strong feelings that Holder mentions—"legislation that addressed racial profiling"—dates from Obama's days as a state legislator. As a U.S. senator and president, he has resembled a standard-issue drug warrior much more than a reformer. Most shamefully, he has failed to use his unilateral clemency powers to free the federal drug offenders whose prison terms he admits are unjust. 

As Holder notes, his Smart on Crime initiative, like the Fair Sentencing Act,  reflects a conclusion that has "attracted overwhelming, bipartisan support in 'red states' as well as 'blue states' ": The mindlessly harsh penalties produced by a reflexive tough-on-crime attitude are neither fair nor prudent. Or as UCLA criminologist Mark Kleiman puts it, "long prison terms are wasteful government spending." The attorney general's speech is encouraging as yet another sign of that realization. Whether it amounts to more remains to be seen.

NEXT: Fair Bans Rodeo Clown Who Wore Obama Mask

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. “Holder Says Drug Offenders Are Serving ‘Draconian’ Sentences; Why Won’t Obama Let Them Out?”

    I think Holder needs to step up to the plate and take action. If Obama is being obstructionist then he should use the power of his office to get things done.

  2. So was Herman Goering the ultimate libertarian? He was a fat white man who used drugs, was shot by police, used slave labor, opposed Stalin, FDR, The UK, the French, US wars, US foreign policy, US regime Change and the US “justice” system and the right to die?

    1. He also enjoyed cocktail parties with political insiders.

  3. Whenever it seems that this administration is talking actual sense about anything, I reach for my wallet. They don’t do anything that doesn’t get them something.

    1. Just remember that they fucking lie about everything.

      You’ll know that Obama’s going to end the drug war when he holds a press conference to announce his new push to win it.

  4. Edmund: Why, this piece of paper that Your Majesty has just signed turns out
    to be some sort of death warrant!

    Elizabeth: Oops. …and I can’t go back on it without destroying the whole
    basis of the British Constitution…

    1. Queenie: I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach… of a concrete elephant!

      Partridge: Prove it!

      Queenie: Certainly will! First I’m going to have a little drinky… and then I’m going to execute the whole bally lot of you!

  5. Literally the only unlimited power the POTUS has is to pardon. POTUS can pardon anyone, for any crime, at any time.

    So I am really looking forward to the squirming explanations from his fan club on why people are still in jail for smoking pot.

    1. Because those mean ol’ Obstrublicans will just say he’s soft on pot smokers and criminals and then he won’t be able to accomplish anything because someone called him a name.

      1. He has to maintain his tough on crime stance. There’s an election coming up in 2016.

      2. Damn you Hugh, I was going to make the exact same comment.

        You must be practicing some sort of comment sorcery.

        1. Or I don’t spend my whole day on the toilet trying to pass that 2 lb. beef ‘n butter burrito from the night before.

          1. You might spend the entire day on the porcelain throne but it won’t be for trying to pass.

          2. Please. It was one of my patented super-waffles. A pile of caramels, waffle batter, and liquid smoke, wrapped around a stick of butter.

            1. John H Galt, Jimbo, if you’re gonna blatantly rip off the Simpsons, could you at least put your whole ass into the effort?

              They’re called Patented, Space-Age, Out of This World Moon Waffles.

              And we all know that you take all of your food in burrito form, so there’s no use denying it.

              1. I couldn’t remember the name of the waffles and was far too apathetic to look it up.

                In other words, blow me.

    2. Literally the only unlimited power the POTUS has is to pardon drone strike. POTUS can pardon drone murder anyone, for any crime, at any time.


    3. He might issue mass pardons when he leaves office in 2017. Especially if a Republican is elected.

  6. Holder makes noises about federally decriminalizing small-time possession, but says nothing about medical marijuana dispensaries. I’ve got a feeling his speech was crafted specifically to exclude having to walk back that particular policy.

    1. Bet they’ll still do a mandatory minimum for the dispensary owners. There’s profit there.

      1. Don’t be so sure. If the governement lets them out after a short stint, they might rebuild their enterprise so they can be robbed again.

    2. John’s analysis is correct.

      This is pure propaganda to shore up the youngen base while they don’t do anything different.

      Remember the lies about respecting the public of states that enacted Medical Marijuana?

      How about teh the most transparent administration evah?

      The lies used to sell Obamacare?

      Hell, multiple cabinet level officials have repeatedly committed perjury to Congress.

      But you can trust them this time, it’s totally different.

  7. “Holder Says Drug Offenders Are Serving ‘Draconian’ Sentences; Why Won’t Obama Let Them Out?”

    It’s because he’s a phony.

    1. And this policy is a complete fake that will not result in anyone actually getting a lesser sentence.

      1. They’ve had five years to care about these draconian sentences…

        They don’t give a shit about whether drug offenders are serving draconian sentences.

        They just care about how their approval rating in the polls is sinking, and their disapproval numbers are climbing.

        1. Ken Shultz| 8.12.13 @ 9:38PM |#
          “They’ve had five years to care about these draconian sentences…”

          Yep, Holder woke up this morning and said: ‘Oh my god! We’ve been putting people in jail under draconian rules for five years! Why didn’t I think of this before?!’
          Yeah, I’ll go for that.

          1. “The czar has finally heard our pleas! I knew that once he found what was *really* going on he’d take decisive action! Or make a vague speech. Whatever.”

          2. Yeah, and the things they’re doing, apparently, don’t require any input from the Republicans in Congress, either… Can’t blame it on the Republicans!

            They could have done all these things the minute Obama took office, but every day, for five years, they chose to impose draconian drug sentences instead.

  8. lol, Holder is an idiot, soimething we all know lol.

    1. Holy shit. Anonbot is right on the money. This is obvious proof that Skynet is an inevitability.

  9. Why won’t he let them out?


    Does he even care?

  10. I presume that all drug prisoners have either finished their sentences, or they are affiliated with gangs. Why else would the administration let them rot behind bars after denouncing the draconian laws which put them there?

  11. Barack Hussein Osama… I mean, uh, Obama. Osama, Obama? What’s the difference other than one consonant and one never shaved while the other infiltrated their common enemy at the highest level.

    Many are accused of racism if they criticize the president. I ask, if we only “loathe” HIS WHITE HALF then we’re not racists then, right? People forget he’s mulatto and HE’S NOT DESCENDED FROM SLAVES WHO TOILED ON SOUTHERN PLANTATIONS BY THE CRACKING OF WHIPS. {our black friends can hate his white half for being a “cracker” and the black one for playing the race card as if his ancestors WERE kidnapped from their villages and shipped to America in chains. In fact, how do we not know that his ancestors were the ones kidnapping people of other tribes and selling them to the European slave traders?}

    Anyway, many folks praise Obama because he’s “black” (though in reality a mulatto, I point out to those playing the race card). If he really was a “black” man on a mission to make right all the injustices perpetrated against “his people” by “whitey,” his first order of business would have been to IMMEDIATELY order the release this man and countless others like him. Also can’t not notice the silence of posers Al Sharpton and Jessie Jackson on the issue either. It’s deafening.

    1. Here’s link to excepts from Frontline: SNITCH, which aired on PBS in 1999, and others. His is one of — if not THE — most high profile cases of egregious injustice. There are literally TENS OF THOUSANDS more like him, however, although they may not be doing life but, still, sentences far longer than at least half of the murderers featured on the ID, CI, etc, channels I watch a LOT.



  12. The fact speaks for itself [even the nefarious racist and founding father of the War On Drugs, Richard Nixon, had more compassion and sense of justice as much as I hate to admit] Oh, it’s important to note that although Obama’s pardoned 39 people, what REALLY matters is granting COMMUTATIONS to CURRENT INMATES because the people who got the pardons have been out for years, that is, if they even served any prison time at all.

    Note: for YEARS it was over 50% for “drugs” [note race breakdown: blacks disproportionate to their % of demographic]

  13. The Washington Post
    “And, ultimately, the prosecutor’s office and the sentencing judge supported an immediate commutation for Aaron.”

    I read some drivel from somebody in the administration saying that “procedure” needed to be followed in order for presidential review AS IF THE ABOVE DID NOT MATTER. What part of IMMEDIATE don’t they understand? Just who ARE these people? Just another worthless excuse for a human being with a gubmint “job” try to justify their existence, no doubt.

    This really needs to be kicked up a few more notches to prove to the American people –and black community– that OBAMA IS WORSE THAN NIXON AND TIME IS LONG OVERDUE FOR HIM TO BE CALLED OUT ON IT.

    “BARACK OBAMA: HOPE AND CHANGE?” If you believed that, you may be interested in buying one of the two bridges I have for sale. One connects the cities of Oakland and San Francisco. The other, the island of Manhattan to Brooklyn. Buy both and get 20% discount — order within the next 15 minutes you get the bridge that connects Arlington National Cemetery with the District of Columbia at NO additional charge – it may not generate toll revenue but it does have a lot of prestige!

  14. A long sentence saves the trouble of arresting the criminal again after they are released. A drug dealer doesn’t have many job prospects, other than dealing drugs again.

  15. The strategies described in this post regarding to increase traffic at you own webpage are actually nice, thanks for such pleasant paragraph.…..ue-521.php

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.