On Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at the Press Club in D.C. and gave what may be one of his last speeches before stepping down. He announced that there have been quantitative strides in his actions taken to reform criminal sentencing in America. Holder realized very early on that the criminal disparities in sentencing in drug cases resulted in African Americans being sentenced to higher sentences and to mandatory minimums. Attorney General Holder stated, “For years prior to this administration, federal prosecutors were not only encouraged – but required – to always seek the most severe prison sentence possible for all drug cases, no matter the relative risk they posed to public safety. I have made a break from that philosophy.” Data compiled by the U.S. Sentencing Commission shows that the efforts made by Holder have helped to dramatically reduce mandatory minimums and to reserve higher and harsher sentencing to more serious offenders. Attorney General Holder’s approach was to reserve the more severe sentences to those offenders that deserved it, instead of indiscriminately applying harsh sentences to every drug defendant coming before a federal court. The change in policies affects the nonviolent drug cases and allows the federal prosecutors to use discretion in these cases.
Attorney General Holder’s approach as Attorney General was to make America less dependent or reliant on incarceration. He noted in his speech the effect of the previous approach to criminal justice saying “After all, although the United States comprises just five percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of its prisoners. While the entire U.S. population has increased by about a third since 1980, the federal prison population has grown by almost 800 percent over the same period.” And most studies have shown that this increased incarceration has not improved safety to our communities. But studies have shown that African American men and Hispanic men make up almost 50% of the U.S. prison population while black men make up 6% of the U.S. population. The Sentencing Commission confirms that numbers show that federal prosecutors sought mandatory minimum penalties at a lower rate in 2014 than in any other year on record.
Attorney General was responsible for having President Obama to sign the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the inappropriate and unjust 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. And although the disparate gap was reduced to approximately 18-1, it is a vast improvement. African Americans are more likely to use crack cocaine over white Americans, while white Americans more likely use powder cocaine. Yet, crack cocaine uses powder cocaine as a base. There should not be any distinction in sentencing between the two.
Perhaps, the effects of Holder’s change in U.S. attitudes to incarceration can be seen in places like Kentucky, Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania – where governors and legislatures of both parties have provided a model for others to emulate by directing funds away from prison construction and towards programs designed to reduce recidivism. Building new prisons in communities is not the answer to the issues of criminal justice.
Overall, in Fiscal Year 2014, the U.S saw its first reduction in the federal prison population in 32 years. And perhaps, more importantly, the U.S, under Holder and the Obama administration has achieved side-by-side reductions in both crime and incarceration in more than 40 years. Holder stated that improvements and changes to the criminal justice system under his leadership are just a beginning for laying a foundation for a new era in American justice. If confirmed by the Senate, hopefully, US Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch will continue to work on and improve upon what Attorney General Eric Holder has successfully started under the Obama Administration.