Pubdate: Sun, 18 Aug 2013
Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch (VA)
Copyright: 2013 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC.
Author: Neal Peirce
Page: E5


I thought I'd never live to see the day. But now it's happened. An
attorney general of the United States has finally said he is ready to
blow the whistle on America's ill-fated, racially tinged and cruelly
applied "war on drugs."

Eric Holder signaled the shift in a speech Monday to the American Bar
Association. He admitted that the drug war, which his department has
spearheaded, has wrought grim unintended consequences including
decimating communities of color - part of "a vicious cycle of poverty,
criminality and incarceration that traps too many Americans and
weakens too many communities."

That's precisely the point critics have long been making. I've decried
the drug war and soaring imprisonments in dozens of my own columns,
spread from 1987 to the present. I've found it incomprehensible that
presidents, both Republican and Democratic, could continue to ignore
the moral, practical imperative of reforming a penal system that
results in the United States, with just 5 percent of world population,
incarcerating almost 25 percent of all prisoners.

There had been hope that President Obama, acutely aware of the
system's failing since his community organizing days, would move for
reform soon after taking office. He didn't. And Holder didn't either,
countenancing continued prosecutorial crackdowns, even on low-level
marijuana offenders.

"Attorney General Holder should have said years ago what he said today
- - and he knows it," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the
Drug Policy Alliance.

But now, at least, Holder pledges to make criminal justice reform a
cornerstone of the rest of his tenure as attorney general. Interest in
reform is growing with several bipartisan bills in Congress.

With luck, we may even see Obama himself speak out, using the moral
authority of his office to press for change.

National awareness of the futility of the drug war has risen over
recent years. And there's growing understanding, in an era of fierce
budget shortfalls, that billions of dollars are being expended - by
the federal and state governments alike - on prosecutions and
incarcerations that do little to stem either drug use or crime.

What's not yet clear is how broad the Obama administration's openness
to drug-law reform will actually be.

A top example: The White House drug czar's position is now vacant.
Will the president appoint a new director who is seriously interested
in shifting policy focus from drugs as a criminal justice issue to
health issues and ways to reduce mass incarceration?

And then there's the question of pardons. Anthony Papa, media manager
of the Drug Policy Alliance, who was imprisoned 12 years under New
York state's Rockefeller drug laws before receiving clemency, says it
isn't clear what the administration's new policy will mean for people
currently behind bars. His proposal:

"Obama should use his presidential authority to pardon and, in
particular, commute the sentences of people who were charged under the
old 100-to-1 crack-to-powder-cocaine ratio. Society would be better
served by not locking up people for extraordinarily long sentences for
nonviolent low-level drug offenses. It's a waste of tax dollars and
human lives."

The reality is that the Obama administration - at least up to now-has
been extraordinarily slow in issuing presidential pardons for any reason.

Plus, there is the question of how vigorously Holder will move to
shift the focus of the 94 U.S. attorneys around the country, urging
them to focus drug prosecutions on major, not small-time, users and
dealers. Close to half the drug convictions in federal courts are for
minor offenders such as street-level dealers and couriers, according
to the Washington-based Sentencing Project.

Then there's the question of how the Justice Department will handle
the issue of voter-approved legalization of marijuana use and sale in
Colorado and Washington - actions easily interpreted as violations of
federal law.

Plus, while presidential and Justice Department support for justice
reform can impact national thinking, the vast majority of criminal
cases - for drugs and most other offenses - are in the hands of state

Holder indicates it's positive that 17 states have recently redirected
money from prison construction to such services as treatment and
supervision that are designed to reduce the problem of repeat offenders.

Among the current lead states on reform that he cites are Kentucky,
Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Hawaii.

But there's still a massive reform agenda that needs to be carried
out, nationally and in the 50 states, if we're to return to the
rational and balanced crime approach that prevailed in America before
President Nixon 42 years ago proclaimed and plunged us into an
ill-advised, never-winnable "war on drugs."

Hopefully, the Holder switch marks the beginning of the end for that
policy and the millions of human tragedies that have flowed in its
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