Finally, after working to see the end of mandatory minimum sentencing for nearly 30 years, hearing Attorney General Holder say the obvious – that mandatory sentences don’t work, are costly, unfair and need to be ended – was welcome. Unfortunately, Mr. Holder's comments are mostly rhetoric with inadequate policy change. There are important steps that could be taken by President Obama and Attorney General Holder right now, without Congress, that could end injustice being suffered by tens of thousands and prevent future injustices.
Attorney General Holder’s statement came on the same day as the federal district court in Washington, DC ruled that the New York Police Department’s stop and frisk program was unconstitutional, while the Dream Defenders in Florida were occupying their state capitol to demand specific steps to end racism in the criminal justice system and while Fruitvale Station, a movie about the police killing of Oscar Grant, is showing in theaters throughout the country. The confluence of these events is an opportunity for major improvements in the justice system especially in the war on drugs with a particular focus on the racial unfairness that pervades criminal justice in the United States.
Attorney General Holder is right. “It’s well past time” to end “unwarranted disparities by considering a fundamentally new approach.” And, he was also right when in his speech to the ABA in San Francisco he said that, “As the so-called ‘war on drugs’ enters its fifth decade, we need to ask whether it, and the approaches that comprise it, have been truly effective.” The failure of the drug war is evident to anyone who looks at the facts so this must have been a purely rhetorical question.
It is past time to move beyond rhetoric and time to enact new policies. The essential problem is the United States is using the wrong tools. The fundamentally new approach that is needed begins with recognizing that drug abuse and addiction are health problems and the solutions need to come from health professionals not police, prosecutors and jailers.
The U.S. has used the wrong tools for a long time and the results are evident, as Holder summarized in pointing out that: