In a speech being delivered today in San Francisco to members of the American Bar Association, Attorney General Eric Holder is calling for major changes in how criminal offenders with substance use problems who are in the federal system are addressed. Holder says in his prepared remarks that many states and localities already have instituted some of the reforms that he sees as essential at the federal level, in that they have moved to divert more nonviolent drug offenders to treatment in lieu of incarceration.
“Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities,” Holder is quoted by the Associated Press as saying in his remarks. “However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem, rather than alleviate it.”
Among the changes being announced by Holder, he is modifying current U.S. Department of Justice policy in order not to impose specific criminal charges that trigger mandatory minimum sentences in cases where a low-level drug offender has no ties to a larger criminal organization.
Drug policy reform advocates were first to react to word of impending changes to Justice Department policy, issuing statements last week to say that announcements were imminent. In a statement released Aug. 7, the Drug Policy Alliance referenced a recent National Public Radio (NPR) interview in which Holder said minority communities have been hit particularly hard by unintended consequences from the War on Drugs.
“Attorney General Holder is clearly right to condemn mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system,” said Bill Piper, the Drug Policy Alliance’s director of national affairs.
According to the Associated Press article, around half of the inmates in the nation’s overcrowded federal prisons (operating nearly 40% above capacity) committed drug-related crimes. Some of the changes Holder is calling for can be achieved administratively, while others would require Congress to adopt legislation.
Holder is expected to cite in his speech several states, including Kentucky, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Hawaii, that recently have instituted policy changes to de-emphasize costly incarceration and in some cases to beef up support for substance use treatment services targeting offenders.