Holder Advocates Extending Fair Drug Sentencing Laws


For drug war skeptics and civil libertarians, Wednesday was a good day. For law enforcement hawks, it was, potentially, pretty terrifying. Speaking before the US Sentencing Commission—the body charged with drawing up sentencing rules for federal courts—Attorney General Eric Holder said that the Obama administration favors retroactively applying reduced penalties for federal crack-cocaine offenders “who are not considered dangerous drug offenders,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

Bridging the disparities built into the drug crime-sentencing system has been a cornerstone priority for the Obama administration. Last August, the president signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act, which reversed 1980s-era rules mandating stricter sentences for crack-cocaine crimes than for those related to powder cocaine. Under the older, harsher rules, defendants faced a minimum five-year prison term if convicted of possessing just five grams of crack; in contrast, it took 500 grams of powder cocaine to draw the same sentence.

Those rules were broadly decried as racist (their conservative proponents notwithstanding): most people sentenced for crack charges are black, while those hit with powder-cocaine raps tend to be white or Hispanic. The new guidelines upped the amount of crack cocaine that would require a five-year mandatory minimum sentence to 28 grams, and the amount triggering a ten-year mandatory minimum to 280 grams. 

But Holder’s recommendation to grant softer standards to those already convicted is sure to draw strident protest from conservatives. Consider:

If the new guidelines are applied retroactively, 12,040 offenders sentenced between Oct. 1, 1991 and Sept. 30, 2010 would be eligible to seek reduced sentences, according to Sentencing Commission research. About one-third of the group would be eligible for release, if approved, by Nov. 1, 2012, while the releases as a whole would be spread over 30 years. The average sentence would be reduced from 164 months to 127 months, Commission data showed.

Those prospects are pretty upsetting for some Republicans. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.)—who also opposed the Fair Sentencing Act—said that the administration’s newly announced position “sends a dangerous message to criminals and would-be drug offenders that Congress doesn’t take drug crimes seriously.” And Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) also thinks Holder’s recommendation was a “bad idea.”

For its part, the DOJ said that it wouldn’t grant softer sentences to offenders who had used weapons in their crimes, or to those who boasted lengthy rap sheets. But its position could confirm the right’s worst fears about fairer sentencing and prison reform, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent 5-4 ruling that overcrowding in California’s prisons is so bad that it violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. That decision is expected to result in the release of some 30,000 California prison inmates.

Obama obviously didn’t have a hand in that. But for conservatives bent on characterizing him as a soft-on-crime liberal, that might not matter.

FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2019 demands.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate