The tone of Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech on drug policy reform was great. Holder’s remarks offered a sharp criticism of many current policies using remarkably strong language. Holder called the status quo “unjust and unsustainable.” He made clear that the “widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable.” Instead of helping to reduce the cycle of poverty and crime, Holder acknowledged that the system often makes these problems worse.
Holder also called the racial disparity in drug arrests “shameful” and “deeply troubling”. Holder said, “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.”
The change in rhetoric is welcomed, but in the end it is action that is important. On that front, the Obama administration’s actions regarding this issue of drug policy have not always lived up to their promise.
While still a candidate Barack Obama effectively promised to leave medical marijuana alone in states that approved it, but since taking office federal interference has been worse than under George W. Bush. The administration has also previously talked about a new approach for drugs, but the ratio of money for treatment versus enforcement in Obama’s budget requests are, at best, only a slight improvement.
The focus on racial disparity in the drug war is positive, but it sounds incredibly hollow given that at the same time President Obama is considering picking Ray Kelly to lead the Department of Homeland Security. As NYPD commissioner Kelly is responsible for the stop-and-frisk policy that a federal judge just declared an unconstitutional violation of the 14th amendment.
Holder did lay out some concrete steps the administration plans to take, including working with Congress on new laws, reducing minimum sentences for some criminals, and improving compassionate release. While the administration could do significantly more -like rescheduling medical marijuana or using the power of the pardon more frequently- Holder’s proposals would be steps in the right direction.
I sincerely hope Holder carries through with these modest reforms, but given past behavior I recommend reserving judgement until we see actual results.
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