Can Eric Holder limit mandatory sentences on nonviolent criminals?
By Roger Caldwell
“The U.S. is at a pivotal moment right now where fundamental change to our bloated, racially-biased criminal justice system is possible. But change isn’t inevitable; it will take significant leadership by Attorney General Holder, President Obama, and both Democrats and Republicans in Congress,” says Bill Piper, director of national affairs for Drug Policy Alliance.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and there are between 1.6 to 2 million prisoners in jail. It will cost $24,000 to $27,000 a year to house the prisoners, and 70 percent of them do not have a high school diploma. The south has the highest concentration of prisoners and Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate at 867 per 100,000.
The justice system is broken and Black people have been harmed the most. Dr. Boyce Watkins and Russell Simmons were able to get 175 celebrities, activists, and scholars to co-sign an open letter to the Obama Administration asking them to declare an end to the War on Drugs.
“Our families and communities have been destroyed by the drug war. We were the ones getting addicted to the drugs, being killed over drugs and going to prison for drugs. That’s been the single greatest obstacle for progress in Black America over the last 40 years,” says Dr. Watkins.
Eric Holder has held meetings with Dr. Watkins and his alliance, and has admitted that communities of color have been decimated by the War on Drugs. There is mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and there are other organizations that are petitioning the government for change. Even in Congress, there are lawmakers that have introduced bipartisan measures that would give judges more power to shorten prison sentences for nonviolent criminals, and get rid of mandatory minimum terms.
On paper this all sounds good, but on the street, I wonder if the police got the same message. In New York, a shocking announcement was made by a grand jury that decided not to prosecute an officer who shot and killed an unharmed teen Ramarley Graham in his bathroom.
The decision caused actor Samuel L. Jackson to tweet; NYC cop walks because he thought he had a gun, in the bathroom, of his house, shot dead! Young brothers Beware! It’s Open Season!
Everyday this happens in communities of color, but everyone is scared, and everyone has a gun. It is easy to talk about change, but extremely difficult to initiate a fundamental systemic transformation. Police are taught to shoot first, put small street hustlers in communities of color in jail, or harass them, because no one cares. The millionaires at the top of the drug chain are allowed to operate and inundate the community with drugs.
Corruption and dysfunction is running rampant in the justice system, and it will save taxpayers millions of dollars if non-violent criminals could get their sentences altered and reduced. Black families have been devastated by mass incarceration, and young Black men are caught in the revolving system of prison life.
Eric Holder has also admitted that there are too many people in jail for too long, and he can make changes by directing U.S. attorneys not to prosecute certain kinds of low-level drug crimes. Again this sounds good but in practice, some local police prosecute when they find small amounts of marijuana. It makes no sense that some marijuana sentences have been longer for smaller amounts, and some with larger amounts received shorter sentences.
Drug enforcement priorities will be on the front burner for the president, his administration, lawmakers, and different organizations. There is a major gap between theory and practice, and the police put their lives on the line every day. Can the Attorney General leave a legacy in the justice system and transform the country, or will he get caught up in rhetoric and the federal bureaucracy?