Eric Holder, America's first African-American attorney general, and his boss, Barack Obama, the first black president, haven't been shy about pointing out racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Racial profiling? It's real, they say. State "stand your ground" laws? Obama says they don't work for minorities. Yet both have been conspicuously absent when it comes to redressing racial disparities in their own home turf, the federal government's ill-conceived war on drugs.
That could change when Holder addresses the American Bar Association in San Francisco on Monday.
The war on drugs has presented "a lot of unintended consequences," Holder recently told NPR, and the federal government "can certainly change" its enforcement policies. NPR reports that Justice Department lawyers have been crafting reform proposals, which Holder may roll out at the lawyer confab.
It's about time.
Tea party Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah have co-sponsored legislation (with Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.) to reform federal mandatory minimum sentences. Holder told NPR that the administration wants to work with legislators. Translation: Obama has been waiting for political cover, and now he has it.
Federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws were meant to deliver hard time for drug kingpins, but too often they have been used to incarcerate nonviolent low-level offenders for too long. As U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson told The New York Times, the system rewards people who know enough to inform on others, while "the small fry, the little workers who don't have that information, get the mandatory sentences."
Vinson was explaining how federal mandatory minimums required that he sentence Floridian Stephanie George to life without parole because her dealer boyfriend had stowed a half-kilogram of cocaine in her attic, but the boyfriend and his associates were sentenced to less than 15 years.
The Drug Policy Alliance, which opposes the drug war, has urged the administration to support the Leahy-Paul Justice Safety Valve Act and the Durbin-Lee Smarter Sentencing Act, as well as a bipartisan House bill to allow early supervised release of certain federal prisoners. The alliance's Bill Piper believes "Holder considers sentencing reform to be a legacy issue."
I hope Piper's right. I still am waiting for Obama to make good on his 2008 campaign promise to "immediately" review federal sentencing "to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the ineffective warehousing of nonviolent drug offenders."