Drug War

The Brightest Spot in Holder's Record

How the attorney general tried to make criminal justice less senselessly punitive


Attorney General Eric Holder, who last week said he plans to step down as soon as Congress approves his replacement, sees criminal justice reform as the "signature achievement" of his five and half years in office. He is probably right about that, especially since his record on civil liberties and executive power is almost uniformly awful.

Despite a late start, Holder has done more to highlight the harm inflicted by our excessively punitive criminal justice system than any of his predecessors. And he has done more than talk, pursuing policies that will imprison fewer people who do not belong behind bars, or at least free them sooner.

Between 1996, when he was the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, and 1999, when he was deputy attorney general, Holder went from advocating stiffer drug penalties to conceding "there are some questions that we ought to ask" about "mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders." This turnaround probably was related to Holder's concern about racially skewed justice, which was starkly illustrated by the draconian penalties imposed on federal crack offenders, who are overwhelmingly black.

By the time Holder was appointed attorney general in 2009, he favored equal treatment for the smoked and snorted forms of cocaine. Although Congress did not go that far, in 2010 it shrank the gap substantially.

Yet Holder continued to send mixed signals about mandatory minimums. When the U.S. Sentencing Commission adjusted its guidelines in light of the new crack-to-powder ratio, he urged it not to make the changes fully retroactive. Had the commission listened to Holder, the number of prisoners eligible for shorter sentences would have been reduced from about 12,000 to about 5,500.

Crack sentencing reform was the one bright spot in Barack Obama's drug policy during his first term as president, when he was remarkably stingy with commutations and broke his promise not to interfere with state laws allowing medical use of marijuana. Holder was intimately involved with the latter failure, repeatedly saying that targeting medical marijuana suppliers who comply with state law would not be a good use of the Justice Department's resources, only to be contradicted by his underlings.

Since 2012, by contrast, U.S. attorneys have not tried to interfere with a broader version of marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington, maintaining a policy of prosecutorial forbearance laid out in an August 2013 memo from Holder's deputy, James Cole. Holder, along with Obama, deserves credit for choosing this nonconfrontational approach and making it stick, establishing an important precedent for letting states go their own way on drug policy.

The same month that the Cole memo came out, Holder gave a speech in which he bemoaned our country's world-beating incarceration rate, declaring that "too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason." Since then he has returned to that theme repeatedly.

More important, Holder has followed words with action, instructing U.S. attorneys to charge certain low-level drug offenders in a way that avoids triggering mandatory minimums. That change could help up to 500 defendants each year.

The Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill backed by Holder that the Senate Judiciary Committee approved last January, goes much further. It would make the reductions in mandatory minimums for crack offenses retroactive, cut the mandatory minimums for various other drug offenses in half, and expand the "safety valve" that allows some offenders to escape mandatory minimums.

Even without action by Congress, the president has the power to shorten unjust sentences. Obama has issued only 10 commutations so far, but the Justice Department has indicated that many more should be expected by the end of 2016, which would enhance Holder's legacy to the extent that it reflects his influence.

Although Holder has been focusing on criminal justice reform for only a year or so, his achievements are praiseworthy. Imagine what he might have accomplished if he had taken up the issue sooner.

Copyright © 2014 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. Holder signs on when it is politically expedient.

    In other news, water remains wet.

    1. “This just in – Honest Politician discovered swimming in lake of dry water under a flock of aerial swine. Location remains closely guarded secret.”

  2. “More important, Holder has followed words with action, instructing U.S. attorneys to charge certain low-level drug offenders in a way that avoids triggering mandatory minimums.”

    The cure seems worse than the disease. Yeah, ignore the law so as to avoid the need for the President to grant pardons.

    Which brings us to –

    “the Justice Department has indicated that many more [pardons] should be expected by the end of 2016, which would enhance Holder’s legacy to the extent that it reflects his influence.”

    If Obama issues these election-year (or post-election) pardons, it will be under Holder’s successor. All Holder did was *talk* about maybe pardoning some people. That and $14.00 will get you a spiced pumpkin latte.

    1. That and $14.00 will get you a spiced pumpkin latte.

      There are actually places that charge $14.00 for a cup of coffee? This is why I drink it black from the Mr. Coffee machine.

      1. Ted likes his coffee like he likes his women. Cheap and black.

      2. Google shows that there is, in fact, $14.00 coffee:

        (results of Google search)


    2. For Sullum to defend that POS Holder shows what a fool he is.

  3. Sullum really is the best writer at Reason.

    But I found this article difficult to masturbate to.

  4. The Brightest Spot in Holder’s Record

    His resignation?

    1. His public seppuku would be brighter.

      1. I would literally forgive him for his many trespasses against liberty if he painfully ended himself.

  5. The human eye can detect a candle flame at about 1000 yards… so there’s always a “bright spot” if you look hard enough,. you fuck weasel…(I know that was an egregious flame but I’ve always wanted to type fuckweasel in a post)

    1. That’s not a candle flame – that’s the eye of the abyss staring back.

      1. When you look into the BS, the BS also looks into you.

  6. Before I read the article or any comments let me guess:

    “..the Brightest Spot in Eric Holder’s Record” = His resignation?

    1. Damn. An Innocent Man beat me to it.

      I am not buying it. The shitweasel (good word Radioactive) had the power and opportunity to do substantially more than just talk about reform and he spent his time otherwise; running interference for the worst president ever and engaging in egregious criminal behavior himself.

      Worst AG ever, and that my friends is saying a helluvalot.

      1. shitweasel/fuckweasel tomatoe/tamatoe

  7. There are those who consider this the brightest spot.

  8. The officer says it exactly right —- he gets a complaint from citizen he sees there’s a video he calls them on the phone and tells them there’s a video and all of a sudden the complaint is dropped because of course that person knows he can no longer get away with some stupid ass lie

    The stats in this article are typical complaints go way down when officers are wearing cameras because people know they can no longer get away with bullshit lies

    And of course also officers were aware of the cameras are naturally going to be on better behavior

    Heck I’d prefer if in some cases the investigator didn’t tell the complainant there was video and waited until the complainant locked himself into a false statement

    And it’s really great to see how many times people get convicted of crimes due to body cameras where in my experience it’s the kind a case where it’s almost impossible to get a conviction without one

    Booya body cameras

    1. What?

      1. What?

        Wrong article post. At least the cops are more careful when doing no-knock raids.

  9. Such as here

    She makes a bogus complaint which goes nowhere and she gets convicted for her crime all thanks to the wonders of body cameras


    1. What?

  10. Here a man fucking lies through his teeth to the media that sops it up without question claiming the cop is a racist etc

    But his body camera shows a very different story


    Will this piece of shit be at least fired for lying to the media and trying to ruin an officer’s career based on lies?

    I wait to see

    THIS is exactly why we need and have unions, due process, binding arbitration, etc

    Because when we do our job even 100% correctly we are routinely running the risk of pissing off some lying piece of shit and having our new name dragged through the media and even getting disciplined and fired for something we didn’t do

    Booya body cameras!

    1. Wrong thread, brah.

    2. We get it Dunphy, non-cops are the enemy of your kind. Your people are the jackbooted downtrodden, whose oppression at the hands of the insidious private citizenry should surely be written into the history books as the defining civil rights struggle of our time. Cops have been unfairly castigated for frequent use of kidnappings, bludgeoning, thefts and murders.

      I for one wish to thank you and your ilk Dunphy, for without your kind, who would be the vile scum with their boot on our necks? Thanks for your dedicated dickheaded service.

  11. Talk about damning with faint praise:

    “We should thank Eric Holder for being such a malevolent, politicized piece of crap as an AG that now practically no one can deny that our justice system is run by malevolent, politicized pieces of crap.”

  12. my neighbor’s step-sister makes $80 an hour on the laptop . She has been without a job for 5 months but last month her income was $19097 just working on the laptop for a few hours. navigate to this website….

    ???? http://www.netjob70.com

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