In a speech before the American Bar Association in San Francisco today, Attorney General Eric Holder advocated for sweeping changes in both how nonviolent drug offenders are sentenced in the United States and how we use our prisons. It only took decades and countless taxpayer dollars, but someone with some power is finally admitting that maybe we're going about the drug war all wrong.
Citing prison overcrowding and a desire to be "smarter on crime," Holder plans to direct federal prosecutors to not note the amount of drugs certain low-level offenders—those not in gangs, those who are nonviolent—are caught with, thus allowing them to avoid mandatory minimum sentences. This, he said, "breeds disrespect for the system. When applied indiscriminately, they do not serve public safety." Holder said this new plan of attack is a reaction to a host of laws that simply make no sense.
"Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no good law-enforcement reason," said Holder, according to the Guardian. "Although incarceration has a role to play in our justice system, widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable."
America, which leads the world in incarcerating its own citizens, has long been known as a place where jails are used to brutalize people rather than help them get better. Holder says it is time for that system to die off: "We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate—not merely to convict, warehouse and forget." To that end, Holder is reportedly planning on publicly supporting drug-treatment programs as alternatives to incarceration for America's drug offenders. He is also said to be considering an early release program for elderly inmates whose crimes were nonviolent and who have served most of their sentences.
Though his entire speech is sure to rattle some conservative cages, surely nothing from Holder's address will upset pro-drug-war members of the right (which is not the entirety of the GOP) more than his assertion that "a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities." Holder then added, "[M]any aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem, rather than alleviate it."
[Image via AP]