DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: Sit down with the attorney general to ask him about his priorities, as NPR did earlier this year, and he’ll talk about voting rights and national security. But if you listen a bit longer, Eric Holder gets to this: “I think there are too many people in jail for too long and for not necessarily good reasons.”
This is the nation’s top law enforcement officer calling for a sea change in the criminal justice system. And he’s not alone.
Over the past few weeks, lawmakers have introduced bipartisan measures that would give judges more power to shorten prison sentences for nonviolent criminals and even get rid of some mandatory minimum terms altogether.
“The war on drugs is now 30, 40 years old,” Holder said. “There have been a lot of unintended consequences. There’s been a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color.”
That’s one reason why the Justice Department’s had a group of lawyers working behind the scenes for months on proposals the attorney general could present as early as next week in a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco.
Some of the items are changes Holder can make on his own, such as directing U.S. attorneys not to prosecute certain kinds of low-level drug crimes or spending money to send more defendants into treatment instead of prison. Almost half of the 219,000 people currently in federal prison are serving time on drug charges.
“Well we can certainly change our enforcement priorities, and so we have some control in that way,” Holder said. “How we deploy our agents, what we tell our prosecutors to charge, but I think this would be best done if the executive branch and the legislative branch work together to look at this whole issue and come up with changes that are acceptable to both.”