Holder's justice reform lacks teeth

elderAttorney General Eric Holder’s recent proposal to curb mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders is a step in the right direction, but is it enough?

Holder has the right intentions. In his speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco last week, Holder decried our nation’s prison system for the minority horror show it has become.

“We must face the reality that, as it stands, our system is, in too many ways, broken,” Holder said. “And with an outsized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, to deter and to rehabilitate — not merely to warehouse and to forget … We also must confront the reality that, once they’re in that system, people of color often face harsher punishments than their peers.”



While I agree with Holder’s comments, I am disappointed in the initiatives in his reform package. Aside from lessening some draconian drug penalties and revamping release policies for senior inmates, Holder’s proposal shows no sign of ending the alleged war on non-taxable drugs.

Here was an opportunity for the Obama administration to pave the way for a sensible drug policy, and it instead opted for a small step that is late in catching up with public opinion.

More and more Americans are realizing what a colossal waste of taxpayer money and police resources the drug war is (that this trend coincides with the rise of libertarianism among young people is no accident). Coupled with the alarming fact that our nation houses more than a quarter of the world’s prisoners, it’s clear that Holder’s minuscule revisions lack the boldness needed to reform our broken justice system.

For one, Holder’s proposal not once addresses the prospect of changing federal policy on marijuana, a drug the majority of the American people want legalized.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, marijuana arrests constitute more than half of all drug arrests in the U.S. Not surprisingly, African-Americans are about four times as likely to be incarcerated for a crime involving marijuana.

With such clamorous support for marijuana legalization from the American public, Holder’s omission of marijuana-related policy shifts in his reform package doesn't reflect the times. Factor in the racial bias evident in marijuana-related arrests, and Holder’s proposal fails to live up to the promises given in his speech.

The more insidious implication of Holder’s proposal neglects the plight of working-class minorities. Note that the reform package only seeks to grant leniency to non-violent drug offenders who are not affiliated with large scale organizations, drug cartels and gangs.

The problem here is that many minority youths in poor, urban communities are likely to be either affiliated with gangs or at least assumed so by the police. Yet who can blame them? Lawful employment and quality education is hard to come by in inner cities, and for most minority young adults the only lucrative option is the drug trade.

Once imprisoned, many of these people lose all chance for upward mobility in society. Employers seldom hire ex-convicts, and minority youths, once released, ultimately return to the drug trade. It's shameful that Holder decided against extending his reform policy to the most victimized demographic of the drug war.

Aside from these two huge missed opportunities, Holder's proposal is a positive change for our society. But it could have changed so much more.

Reach the columnist at Alexander.Elder@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @ALEXxElder

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