Pubdate: Sun, 01 Mar 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company
Author: Eric H. Holder Jr.
Note: The writer is attorney general of the United States.


Today, a rare consensus has emerged in favor of reforming our federal 
drug sentencing laws. This presents a historic opportunity to improve 
the fairness of our criminal justice system. But unless we act 
quickly, we risk letting the moment pass.

The Justice Department has sought to be an early innovator on this 
front. A year and a half ago, I launched the Smart on Crime 
initiative- a comprehensive effort to reorient the federal 
government's approach to criminal justice. It focused on reducing the 
use of draconian mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug 
offenses and deepening our investment in rehabilitation and reentry 
programs that can reduce the likelihood of recidivism.

Preliminary results from this effort are extremely encouraging. In 
the last year, federal prosecutors have gone from seeking a 
mandatory-minimum penalty in two out of every three drug-trafficking 
cases to doing so in one out of two. This represents the lowest rate 
on record, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Last year 
also witnessed the first reduction in the federal prison population 
in 32 years. Most impressive of all, we achieved this drop in 
incarceration as we cut the crime rate, marking the first 
simultaneous reduction in both crime and incarceration rates in more 
than four decades.

But while it is indisputable that we are moving in the right 
direction, there is a limit to what the Justice Department can 
accomplish on its own. Moving forward, we need to build upon and make 
permanent these gains through action in Congress.

There is a clear will to act. In a time of seemingly intractable 
partisanship in Washington, criminal justice reform is an issue that 
is transcending party lines. Just over a week ago, conservative 
stakeholders such as Koch Industries and Americans for Tax Reform 
joined with progressive voices such as the Center for American 
Progress to form a coalition dedicated to this cause. On Tuesday, 
President Obama convened a bipartisan collection of lawmakers - 
including Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Rand 
Paul (R-Ky.) and Cory Booker (D-N. J.) and Reps. Jason Chaffetz 
(R-Utah) and Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (D-Va.) - to discuss possible 
congressional action. And just a few days ago, Supreme Court Justices 
Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas joined a dissent 
by Justice Elena Kagan lamenting a federal criminal statute "with 
too-high maximum penalties."

These unlikely alliances on what was recently one of the country's 
most divisive political issues highlight the opportunity to act, and 
act now. As we seek to channel this bipartisan resolve, a few 
specific items of unfinished business should command our immediate attention.

Although Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act to eliminate a 
discriminatory 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder 
cocaine, thousands of individuals who committed crimes before 2010 
are still serving sentences based on the old ratio. This is unfair. 
Congress should pass legislation to apply that statute retroactively 
so that no one is sitting in prison serving a sentence that Congress, 
the president and the attorney general have all declared unjust.

While the Justice Department has declined to seek harsh mandatory 
minimum sentences in cases where they are not warranted, we need to 
codify this approach. Congress should pass one of the multiple 
bipartisan bills aimed at restricting and refining those crimes to 
which mandatory minimums apply.

State legislatures should eliminate statutes that prevent an 
estimated 5.8 million U.S. citizens from exercising their right to 
vote because of felony convictions. These unfair restrictions only 
impede the work of transitioning formerly incarcerated people back 
into society.

Finally, we should seek to expand the use of federal drug courts 
throughout the country for low-level drug offenses. These programs 
provide proven alternatives to incarceration for men and women who 
are willing to do the hard work of recovery, and it is my hope that, 
in the next five years, there will be an operational drug court in 
every federal district - with individual states following suit.

While I will depart the Obama administration in the coming weeks - 
and my own formal career in law enforcement will soon draw to a close 
- - I intend to continue this work, to promote this mission and to 
advance this cause. And I hope that, in the days ahead, leaders in 
Congress and around the country will come together to help build the 
fairer, more efficient and more effective criminal justice system 
that all Americans deserve.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom