It was big news Monday when Attorney General Eric Holder told the American Bar Association in San Francisco, "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."
It was big news because the Obama administration finally looked to what it could do about racial disparities under federal jurisdiction -- instead of pointing at what others in the criminal justice system are doing wrong.
It was big news because the administration finally has caught up with Republicans such as Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah. Paul and Lee have co-sponsored bills with Dick Durbin of Illinois and Pat Leahy of Vermont to reform mandatory minimum sentences so that nonviolent small-time offenders don't serve decades in prison while kingpins who can inform on them serve lesser time.
It's big news that the administration finally is saying that it won't prosecute cases it never should have touched to begin with. You don't send the heavy artillery of federal enforcement to roust varmints when its job is supposed to be to bring down the top of the food chain in the drug trade.
I am not sure the Department of Justice is clear that it is supposed to limit its fire to big cases. A summary of Holder's new "Smart on Crime" approach explained that in some cases involving nonviolent offenders, "prosecutors ought to consider alternatives to incarceration, such as drug courts, specialty courts, or other diversion programs." Again, why would the federal government even go after someone who just needs a good rehab program?
Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told me that the fact that Holder used this rhetoric is big. "Considering the crumbs we've been fed the last 20 years," said Stewart, "this is kind of bite-sized." Now the administration will follow conservatives and liberals who have been clamoring for sentencing reform.
Holder never got around to explaining how his department will address marijuana enforcement in light of state laws legalizing not only medical marijuana but also recreational use of marijuana. He still plans to leave those decisions to U.S. attorneys, even though he spoke in favor of leaving some crimes to local prosecutors.
Also, the attorney general said nothing about what the administration plans to do about inmates who are serving draconian sentences now. When it comes to his use of the power to pardon and commute federal sentences, President Barack Obama has shown the least amount of mercy of any modern American president, yet Holder named no individual in prison today whose sentence the president will commute. Alas, this president demands racial justice only where he has little authority.
"This president wants to be compared to (Abraham) Lincoln and (Martin Luther) King, but he misses the main points of their arguments," noted Craig DeRoche of the conservative Justice Fellowship. "They were advancing the cause of justice."