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Eric Holder at the ABA annual convention in San Francisco, August 12, 2013
Attorney General Eric Holder deplored aspects of the criminal-justice system Monday.
In a speech delivered Monday to the American Bar Association meeting at its annual convention in San Francisco, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called for a major change in the nation's criminal justice system that includes a bit of what prison and drug-war critics have been seeking for decades.

Holder noted that with the drug war entering its fifth decade, "we need to ask whether it, and the approaches that comprise it, have been truly effective—and build on the Administration’s efforts, led by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, to usher in a new approach." In truth, the asking has been done. And the answer is clear. The approaches have been stunningly effective if societal destruction is what one has in mind. For all the good ideas in Holder's speech, however, it was what was missing that ought to get some attention.

For instance, nowhere in Holder's speech, which included data about the damage caused to society by the war on drugs, did he directly mention the impact of law enforcement actions related to marijuana. Despite the evidence of marijuana's medicinal benefits and its generally benign effects (particularly when compared with tobacco and alcohol), the administration apparently plans, even with the reforms that Holder announced, to continue spending gargantuan annual sums to prosecute marijuana cases. This encourages state and local jurisdictions to do the same, a policy—an idiotic, counterproductive, destructive and expensive policy—that many supporters of President Obama expected to be changed years ago.

Holder made clear that changes he is proposing will not have an immediate impact and that this is "only the beginning":

As a nation, we are coldly efficient in our incarceration efforts. While the entire U.S. population has increased by about a third since 1980, the federal prison population has grown at an astonishing rate—by almost 800 percent. It’s still growing—despite the fact that federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity.

Even though this country comprises just 5 percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. More than 219,000 federal inmates are currently behind bars. Almost half of them are serving time for drug-related crimes, and many have substance use disorders. Nine to 10 million more people cycle through America’s local jails each year. And roughly 40 percent of former federal prisoners—and more than 60 percent of former state prisoners—are rearrested or have their supervision revoked within three years after their release, at great cost to American taxpayers and often for technical or minor violations of the terms of their release.

As a society, we pay much too high a price whenever our system fails to deliver outcomes that deter and punish crime, keep us safe, and ensure that those who have paid their debts have the chance to become productive citizens. Right now, unwarranted disparities are far too common. As President Obama said last month, it’s time to ask tough questions about how we can strengthen our communities, support young people, and address the fact that young black and Latino men are disproportionately likely to become involved in our criminal justice system—as victims as well as perpetrators.

We also must confront the reality that—once they’re in that system—people of color often face harsher punishments than their peers.  One deeply troubling report, released in February, indicates that—in recent years—black male offenders have received sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes. This isn’t just unacceptable—it is shameful.  It’s unworthy of our great country, and our great legal tradition. And in response, I have today directed a group of U.S. Attorneys to examine sentencing disparities, and to develop recommendations on how we can address them.

New policies that walk all that back about 50 paces would be welcome indeed. And there is no gainsaying the fact that doing so will not be easy.

Among the proposed changes:

• Altering the DoJ's charging policies of low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who are part of gangs or cartels so that they do not face "draconian mandatory minimum sentences." Sentences will be determined by individual conduct.

• Supporting bipartisan legislation introduced by Sen. Pat Leahy, Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy, Mike Lee and Rand Paul that would end the imposition of mandatory minimums on some drug offenders.

• Increasing support for crime victims.

• Setting up a new task force to "respond to the extreme levels of violence faced by far too many American Indian and Alaska Native children."

Sign our petition urging Congress to abolish mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. There has never been a better time to take action on this.

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Mon Aug 12, 2013 at 12:23 PM PDT.

Also republished by Support the Dream Defenders, Prison Watch, RaceGender DiscrimiNATION, and Daily Kos.

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