Attorney General Eric Holder’s remarks about criminal justice to an American Bar Association gathering this week were in many ways groundbreaking. After nearly 35 years of “lock ’em up” rhetoric from public officials, a sitting United States attorney general has finally conceded that the policies resulting from that rhetoric may have gone too far.
Holder declared that the criminal justice system is “in too many respects broken.” He added that “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.” He noted that people convicted of drug crimes make up nearly half the federal prison population, and that “widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable.”
There is significant symbolic value in someone in Holder’s position uttering those words. Fifteen years ago, they would have been highly controversial, possibly career ending. But the consensus in the legal community appears to be that Holder’s proposed reforms will at best put but a small dent in the federal prison population. In the end, the actual policy changes will give federal prosecutors yet more discretion (which means more power), but recommend they go easier on some defendants in some drug cases. Former federal prosecutor Ken White concluded of Holder’s memo, “Great and terrible power, exercised with some lenience, is still great and terrible power.”
But if Holder and his boss truly believe that our federal prisons are populated with large numbers of people who don’t deserve to be locked up, there’s something they could do immediately to change that: grant those people clemency. Indeed, if Holder and Obama feel the sentences some in the federal prison system are unjust, you could make a strong argument that they’re obligated to commute those people’s sentences, at least morally if not legally.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s record here isn’t just poor, it’s historically poor. Thus far, after four and a half years in office, Obama has commuted exactly one sentence. (He has also issued 39 pardons, but all for people who had already served their sentences.) As journalist Jacob Sullum points out, even when compared to Richard Nixon — the president who ushered in the modern drug war — Obama looks heartless: “Nixon granted 60 commutations, 7 percent of the 892 applications he received, during his 67 months in office, while Obama has granted one out of 8,126, or 0.01 percent, over 55 months.”
– Read the entire article at The Huffington Post.