Mandatory Minimums

Eric Holder's Views on Sentencing Evolved More Slowly Than He Remembers

The former attorney general supported mandatory minimums for drug offenses as a federal prosecutor in the 1990s.



As I've said before, Eric Holder deserves credit for calling attention to excessively harsh criminal penaltes when he was attorney general. But in his recently aired interview with Frontline, his recollection of his growing misgivings about mandatory minimum sentences gives him more credit than he deserves. According to Holder, he recognized the injustice of harsh and rigid drug penalties when he was serving as a judge on the Superior Court of the District of Columbia in the late 1980s and early '90s. But he was still defending mandatory minimums for drug offenses as the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia in 1996.

Here is how Holder describes the evolution of his views on sentencing:

I experienced firsthand what it was like to be a judge, to send people to jail for inappropriate amounts of time given what they had done….

I'm a judge here in Washington, D.C. Somebody sells $20 worth of crack to an undercover police officer. Under the laws that existed in Washington, D.C., at that time, that would get you a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. Now, the person who might have sold those drugs was selling the drugs because he or she had received some drugs from a larger drug dealer to support their own habit, and the sale of that $20 rock would put that person in jail for five years, when what that person really needed was drug treatment.… Now, a sentence of five years for selling a $20 rock to an undercover police officer, when you're doing that to support a drug habit that you have, that just seemed to me to be not a good use of resources. But more than that, that just seemed to me fundamentally unfair.

If so, that conviction did not stop Holder from urging the D.C. Council to reinstate mandatory minimums for drug offenses in 1996, when he was the District's top federal prosecutor. According to The Washington Post, Holder also argued that the penalties for selling marijuana were "much too lax to address the problem." That same year, he told the Post "we have too long taken the view that what we would term to be minor crimes are not important," referring specifically to marijuana possession. "If you take these so-called minor crimes seriously and treat them fully, it has a ripple effect."

In 1997 Holder criticized jury nullification in cases involving nonviolent drug offenses: "While an isolated drug sale might be viewed as nonviolent, Holder said, the crack cocaine trade as a whole 'has had a devastating impact on the city, largely because of the violence associated with it.'" Never mind that the violence is an entirely predictable side effect of prohibition.

Holder began to publicly express doubts about drug sentences two years later, when he was deputy attorney general. At that point he conceded "there are some questions that we ought to ask" about "mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders." By the time he became attorney general in 2009, Holder 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. In 2013 Holder gave a widely noted speech declaring that "too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason." He returned to that theme repeatedly and issued new charging guidelines aimed at reducing the number of drug offenders subject to mandatory minimums.

In the Frontline interview, Holder emphasizes the importance of passing sentencing reform legislation this year:

If this doesn't happen, this would be, I think, one of the worst moments in recent congressional history. I'd be ashamed of this nation if we didn't pass some significant new legislation….

Given the human cost that's paid under the schemes that are in place, given the number of people who are serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes, or who are serving 20- and 30-year sentences for nonviolent crimes, who have paid their debt to society and are still in jail, at some point it's incumbent upon people who hold levers of power to simply do the right thing. And the right thing here is clear. It's absolutely clear.

I agree. But it was not quite so clear to Holder as early as he implies.

NEXT: Eric Holder Says Marijuana 'Ought to Be Rescheduled'

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  1. Unless he is publishing from behind bars, I don’t give a shit what Holder has to say.

  2. Eric Holder threads are boring.

  3. I wonder if his view on gun running into a sovereign nation via drug cartels has evolved yet.

    Or will he wait until President Trump has been sworn in to before thinking it is a bad idea?

    Seriously, fuck Holder. He’s a piece of shit arms dealer that got countless Mexicans and Americans killed because he used the black market that the drug war has caused to flood another nation with weapons so people could get killed and he could go after our 2A rights. He should be chucked headlong into a wood chipper running at a very low rate of speed but at a high torque rate.

    1. Just to be clear, ^^this^^ was not hyperbole.

    2. Actually he did a lot more to end the drug war than most AGs. You are very wrong. And you are a hypocrite.

      1. “A lot more” is a pretty low bar, buddy.

        How am I very wrong? What lie did I tell?

        And how am I a hypocrite?

        1. You don’t end a war by ‘chucking’ people in woodchippers. Or even threatening it. That’s how you keep a war going. Of course, that is your goal. Proceed:

          1. What war? The war Holder and Obama were waging against the 2A by flooding another country with guns so people would kill others and they could gin up support for gun control? That war? Because I think a good way to end it would be by seeing bastards like Holder chucked into wood chippers.

            It might serve as an actual deterrent to those who would follow in his footsteps.

            1. ^THIS!

            2. “I think a good way to end it would be by seeing bastards like Holder chucked into wood chippers.” Yes, that’s a great way to end a war. /sarcasm – I think it’s disgusting. And quite a conspiracy theory with the tired logic of a white supremacist – ‘we must kill some people so they stop brainwashing others who are too stupid to realize they are being manipulated’.

              1. You end a war by destroying your enemy. In this case, Holder is an enemy of freedom and self defense. Not to mention he deliberately contributed to the deaths of innocents.

                He belongs on the ash heap of history.

                1. Nope. You end a war by exposing the government agents that are promoting it. I feel bad for them, it’s their job, and they don’t know anything else. But still enough’s enough.

                  1. Ok.

                    So the fatal flaw in your trolling was to excuse the actions of willing participants. You’ve got to occasionally concede that someone has a valid point but keep running your long con by shifting goalposts.

                    See, you could have said “nope, you end. War by exposing those responsible and by changing minds. I feel bad for them because they are helpless against public opinion fueled by GOP drug warriors.”

                    That might have kept your game alive a little longer anyway. But keep working on it. This was a game effort.

                    1. I smell a Tulpa.

  4. Having followed this issue for years, I can say that Obama and Holder were ahead of the curve on this. The real problem is the addiction industry, which has a strangle hold on the CDC and NIH/NIDA, which are still both in the stone age.

    1. Obama was way ahead, seeing as he sold drugs when he was younger. Which I couldn’t possibly care less about.

      But he is still terrible on this, seeing as he has the ability to pardon anyone convicted of a federal drug crime and yet doesn’t do so very often. And they’re both fucking horrible on the 1A, 2A, 4A and 5A, which is a hell of a lot more important to me than where they stand on drug legalization (even though they don’t give a fuck about casual Coke users or meth users).

      1. What? Haha. Actually Obama and Holder have been great on releasing people for drug convictions. It was in the news a few months ago. As for releasing everyone, he is the president not head Caliph. As for 1A he is better than Trump, Cruz, Rubio and Hilary. Everyone who said nasty things about him for the past 8 years is now wishing he could stay around for a while longer.

        1. He had the power to instantly release every federal drug prisoner with the stroke of a pen. What a lot of apologists for Obama on this issue don’t realize is that he has been punting an imaginary football over to Congress since day one, when he could have just walked it over the goal line.

          1. No one is saying he should “instantly release every federal drug prisoner” except you. You are an extremist. Perhaps you should run for Head Caliph. I’d vote for you. Do we get votes?

            1. I’ll give the regular that’s trolling here a B- by the way. The Caliph comment took it too far.

            2. Extremist: A person who belives all people locked in cages for decades for purely consensual behavior should be released.

              Got it. And all this time I thought the cagers were the extremists!

  5. “If you take these so-called minor crimes seriously and treat them fully, it has a ripple effect.”

    True, but not in the way he implies.

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  7. States need to also look at their sentencing practices. Let me give you just one example why…Lenny Singleton.
    Lenny committed 8 “grab & dash” robberies in a 7 day period while high on alcohol & crack. He did not have a gun. He did not murder anyone. In fact, he didn’t even physically injure anyone & not one person filed as a “victim.” He stole a total of less than $550 & these were his first felonies. He earned a college degree & served in our Navy before he allowed his addiction to destroy his life. What he got was 2 Life Sentences + 100 years. The judge, without any explanation to the courtroom, sentenced Lenny to more time than rapists, child molesters, or murderers. Lenny, while incarcerated, works every business day, lives in the Honor’s Dorm, takes every class for self-improvement, and in his spare time, has co-authored a book called, “Love Conquers All.” During the entire 20+ years he has been in prison so far he has not received a single infraction for anything – rare for lifers. American taxpayers will pay well over a million dollars to keep Lenny in prison for the rest of his life – for stealing less than than $550 in crimes where no one was physically injured? Justice will not have been served if Lenny dies in prison. Now that you have just one example, multiple that by literally thousands of cases all across the US to get the bigger picture. Please learn more and sign Lenny’s petition at

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