Attorney General Eric Holder and the Obama administration are continuing to push for reforms of draconian drug sentencing policies that have led the U.S. federal prison population to skyrocket over the past three decades. The White House announced that they will curtail federal mandatory minimum drug laws by ordering prosecutors to remove any references to specific amounts of illegal drugs that trigger mandatory minimum sentences. Holder also ordered prosecutors to refile charges against defendants in pending cases and to apply the new policy to defendants who are already in the system but have not yet been sentenced.
“I must say I’m impressed at the speed and specificity with which Mr. Holder has followed up on last month’s comments,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “This looks like a major good faith effort to reform federal drug sentencing laws as much as possible given the constraints of federal law and judicial prerogative over sentencing.”
According to the New York Times, the policy applies to defendants who meet four criteria: their offense did not involve violence, the use of a weapon, or selling drugs to minors; they are not leaders of a criminal organization; they have no significant ties to large-scale gangs or drug trafficking organizations; and they have no significant criminal histories.
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“In my case, the judge said he didn’t want to give me such a long sentence but his hands were tied,” said Anthony Papa, media manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, who served 12 years under New York’s Rockefeller drug laws before receiving clemency from the governor. “Mandatory minimums are a costly and counterproductive cookie-cutter approach that binds a judge’s ability to apply a meaningful sentence that will address the offense and provide for public safety.”
This follows up on Holder’s announcement in August of major federal sentencing changes, including dropping the use of mandatory minimum sentencing in certain drug cases, expediting the release of certain nonviolent elderly prisoners, leaving more offenses to state courts to deal with, and working with Congress to pass bi-partisan sentencing reform.
On Wednesday, a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing built support for bipartisan legislation in Congress, sponsored by likely 2016 Presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT).
“It’s past time for Congress to take action and end the draconian practice of mandatory minimum sentencing,” said Jasmine Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. Tyler spoke on a Congressional Black Caucus panel yesterday with AG Holder as he announced the new directives.
“Feeling the pinch of bloated prison budgets over the last several years, states like Texas and New York have saved taxpayer dollars by reducing incarceration and providing opportunities for individuals to rebuild their lives,” added Tyler. “The White House’s new direction will put increased pressure on more states to follow suit, given that the vast majority of people sentenced to mandatory minimums are not in the federal system.”
The Drug Policy Alliance urges the Obama Administration to support bi-partisan sentencing reform legislation in Congress, such as:
- The Safety Valve Act, introduced in the U.S. Senate by Patrick Leahy and Rand Paul, and in the U.S. House by Representatives Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY). The bills would allow federal judges to sentence nonviolent offenders below the federal mandatory minimum sentence if a lower sentence is warranted.
- The Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced in the U.S. Senate by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mike Lee (R-UT), which would lower mandatory minimums for certain drug law violations, make the recent reduction in the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity retroactive, and give judges more discretion to sentence certain offenders below the mandatory minimum sentence if warranted.
- The Public Safety Enhancement Act, introduced in the U.S. House by Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Bobby Scott, which would allow certain federal prisoners to be transferred from prison to community supervision earlier if they take rehabilitation classes, saving taxpayer money while improving public safety.
The Obama Administration could also take more direct steps, such as:
- Nominate a drug czar who is going to prioritize reducing the federal prison population and undoing racial disparities. ONDCP Director Gil Kerlikoswke was recently nominated to head U.S. Customs and Border Protection, giving President Obama an opportunity to nominate someone who will aggressively shift our approach to drug use from a criminal justice issue to a health issue, which would substantially reduce mass incarceration while improving public health.
- President Obama should use his pardon and commutation power to let certain nonviolent drug offenders out early. In particular, he should use his power to commute the sentences of crack cocaine defendants unfairly languishing in prison under the old, racist 100-to-1 crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. That disparity was reduced to 18-to-1 in 2010 but was not made statutorily retroactive. The president has the power to fix it.
Contact: Tony Newman 646-335-5384 or Anthony Papa 646-420-7290