How to Process Eric Holder’s Major Criminal Law Reform Speech

admin | 18 February 2012 | Blog | | 0 Comments   

How to Process Eric Holder’s Major Criminal Law Reform Speech

By Laura W. Murphy, Director, ACLU Washington Legislative Office & Vanita Gupta, Center for Justice at 2:10pm

Attorney General Eric Holder just called mass incarceration a moral and economic failure. He just outlined several major proposals that he says will help to ease major overcrowding in federal prisons. And he just suggested that federal prosecutors should avoid harsh mandatory minimums for certain low-level, non-violent drug offenses.

What should we make of the nation’s top prosecutor calling out the US for throwing too many people behind bars and challenging the failed war on drugs?

acluFirst off, we should acknowledge that this is a big deal! This is the first speech by any Attorney General calling for such massive criminal justice reforms. This is the first major address from the Obama Administration calling for action to end the mass incarceration crisis and reduce the racial disparities that plague our criminal justice system. In the same speech, the Attorney General committed to take on the school-to-prison pipeline and called on Congress to end the forced budget cuts that have decimated public defenders nationwide. This is great news.

The ACLU can proudly say that it has been deeply engaged in policy discussions with this administration, and Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Many of the reforms that we have long championed made it into the Attorney General’s speech, including:

Developing guidelines to file fewer cases
Directing a group of U.S. Attorneys to examine sentencing disparities and develop recommendations to address them
Directing every U.S. Attorney to designate a Prevention and Reentry Coordinator
Directing every DOJ component to consider whether regulations have collateral consequences that impair reentry
Reducing mandatory minimum charging for low-level drug offenses
Expanding eligibility for compassionate release; and
Identifying and sharing best practices for diversion programs
Calling into question zero tolerance policies and other policies that lead to the school to prison pipeline
Challenging the legal community to make the promise of Gideon (right to counsel) more of a reality
The Attorney General has assured us that this is just the beginning, and he is taking on the bipartisan spirit that has produced state level reforms and has fueled the reduction in state prison populations. These changes are long overdue because the federal prison population continues to grow and is 40% overcapacity. What’s worse, as a soon to be released ACLU report will show, a stunning 2,074 federal inmates are serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole for nonviolent crimes.

Mandatory minimums are partially to blame, leading to a situation in which billions of federal dollars currently go to incarcerating people convicted of low-level drug crimes. It’s great Holder is leading the way, but there is a limit to what he can accomplish by executive action alone. Congress needs to step up. While the ACLU advocates for the repeal of all mandatory minimums, we strongly support bipartisan bills introduced by Senators Paul and Leahy and Senators Durbin and Lee to lessen the impact of mandatory minimums. We welcome the Attorney General’s support of this legislation and his urging of Congress to take swift action.

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