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President Barack Obama’s criminal justice reform lauded for historic proposals to eliminate mandatory sentencing for low-level drug offenses


Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil

The Barack Obama administration has announced a set of proposals aimed at stemming the growth of the U.S. prison population and racial disparities in the criminal justice system — chief among them, the elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level drug offenses.

“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,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday in a speech unveiling the administration’s plans.

According to Holder, the Justice Department will change its policies such that some low-level drug offenders who are not affiliated with gangs or drug cartels will no longer be punished with what he called “draconian” mandatory minimum sentences. Instead, these offenders will receive sentences that “are better suited to their individual conduct,” while the harshest penalties will be reserved for “serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers.”

U.S. prisons are now filled with 2.2 million people — a 500 percent increase over the last 30 years, when the drug war commenced. Nearly half of the inmates in federal prisons have been convicted of drug crimes, and people of color are largely overrepresented at every stage of drug enforcement.

A report released earlier this year by the ACLU found that African Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite similar usage rates between the two groups. Once convicted, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has shown that black men receive prison sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those given to white men for the same crime — a disparity Holder called “shameful.”

It is no surprise, then, that people of color make up two-thirds of all people behind bars for drug arrests, as the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit The Sentencing Project reports.

“Right now, unwarranted disparities are far too common,” Holder said. “It’s time to ask tough questions about how we can strengthen our communities, support young people, and address the fact that young black and Latino men are disproportionately likely to become involved in our criminal justice system — as victims as well as perpetrators.

On top of reforming mandatory minimum sentences, Holder also announced that the Justice Department will update the way it considers compassionate release for aging and ill inmates who did not commit violent crimes, and that it will increase its use of drug treatment and other programs that are aimed at keeping people out of prisons in the first place.

Holder explained that states have already started this process by diverting money away from prison construction and toward community and treatment programs — and that such efforts have led to a reduced prison population in several states, such as Kentucky, Texas and Arkansas.

Holder was sure to add that these strategies to shrink the prison population “have not compromised safety,” but have helped states by reducing the financial burden of a bloated prison system. In 2010 alone, the United States spent $80 billion on incarceration.

 Civil rights groups are already hailing the administration’s reforms. Barbara Arnwine, executive director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, called Holder’s announcement “historic and game-changing,” adding, “mandatory minimum sentences are not only unfair in stature and consequence, they represent a serious threat to the civil rights gains and progress of the 1960s and ‘70s.”

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, also called Holder’s speech “the most significant proposal ever put forth by the Justice Department to reform our nation’s disastrous criminal justice system.”

This week’s announcement was not the first time that Holder and the Obama administration have advocated for criminal justice reform. In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing discrepancies for crack and powder cocaine, and a year later, the U.S. Sentencing Commission retroactively applied these new guidelines to people sentenced before the law was passed.

As Holder said: “We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.”