AG Holder Calls for Rethinking Mandatory Minimum Drug-Crime Sentences at SF ABA Meeting

UPDATED 8/14/2013


August 12 - US Attorney General Eric Holder was aware that coming to California's Bay Area meant encountering drug policy reform advocates. His May appearance at UC Berkeley law school saw him greeted by medical marijuana advocates, including a banner in the sky saying, "Holder: End RX Cannabis War"

In advance of his appearance this morning at the national American Bar Association meeting in Los Angeles, Holder announced the results of a Justice Department review that recommends a re-evaluation of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes as racist, unjust, ineffective and expensive.

Holder spoke of the ABA's mission "to challenge that which is unjust, to break free of a tired status quo....We must face the reality that as it stands. Our system is in too many ways broken." He added, "The course we are on is far from sustainable....even as we see most crime rates decline, we need to....better allocate resources."

"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 – and build on the Administration’s efforts, led by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, to usher in a new approach," Holder said. "And with an outsized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter, and rehabilitate – not merely to warehouse and forget."

He said we must break the "vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration, traps too many Americans and weakens communities....Too many Americans to go too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason."

Holder said these are issues he's been talking about with President Obama "as long as I've known him," and he has made it part of his mission to reduce disparities in justice system. The Trayvon Martin case was mentioned, as well as fixing "the 100:1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine."

Holder said he has been impressed with some state approaches in the Justice Department review he has just released. "I have today directed the United States Attorney community to develop specific, locally-tailored guidelines – consistent with our national priorities – for determining when federal charges should be filed, and when they should not."

"As a nation, we are coldly efficient in our incarceration efforts," Holder said. "[T}he federal prison population has grown at an astonishing rate – by almost 800 percent...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."

"We will start by fundamentally rethinking the notion of federal mandatory minimums for drug-related crimes," Holder announced to robust applause from the audience. "By reserving the most severe penalties for high-volume drug traffickers we can promote safety and rehabilitation," he added, endorsing "very promising" legislation by Sens. Durbin, Leahy, Lee and Paul as giving federal judges more discretion in sentencing.

Holder also announced he is updating the framework for compassionate release for medical release, making additional expansions to policy, including elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes and have served a majority of their sentence.

All US attorneys are now to designate a Prevention and Reentry Coordinator, to prioritize diversion, drug treatment & community service programs. "I’ve directed all Department of Justice components, going forward, to consider whether any proposed regulation or guidance may impose unnecessary collateral consequences on those seeking to rejoin their communities," Holder announced.

"The bottom line is that, while the aggressive enforcement of federal criminal statutes remains necessary, we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation," Holder concluded. "I will always be proud to stand alongside you in building the brighter, more just, and more prosperous future that all of our citizens deserve.

Read full text of speech.

The speech can be viewed at C-SPAN.org

Before the speech, Holder publicly praised Northern California AG Melinda Haag, who has lead a campaign against medical marijuana collectives in her district. "Some of us found it insulting that Holder would give this speech in San Francisco without once mentioning marijuana, especially in light of his department's ongoing, grievous, treacherous failure to respect our medical marijuana laws," said CalNORML director Dale Gieringer. "Last time he visited the Bay Area he was met by protesters calling for an end to the war on medical cannabis. We are still waiting."

Referencing a forfeiture case in Orange County, Geiringer called it, "contemptible abuse of federal forfeiture as DOJ seeks $1.5 million building over $37 pot deal. The landlords are paying the price for having trusted the Ogden memo. When will A.G. Holder be held accountable?"