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It's A Gray Area: Put action behind talk of prison reform

August 23, 2013|By James P. Gray

Virtually all of us in the drug-policy and prison-sentencing reform movements applaud U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.'s comments Aug. 12 at the American Bar Assn. meeting in San Francisco.

This was the first time within memory that a high-ranking federal official has stated the obvious: that we have far too many people in prison in the United States and should rethink our sentencing laws.

As this column has mentioned several times, the United States has 5% of the world's population but 25% of its prisoners. Former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia was quoted on the front page of Parade Magazine as saying, in reference to these statistics: "Either we are the most evil people in the world, or we are doing something wrong."

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It's good to know that our attorney general feels that we are not an evil people.

But after giving him that praise, I think we really must note the many ambiguities in his speech. For example, he said we should modify our sentencing policies only for people who have "no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels."

Who decides who qualifies, and how can these "guidelines" be enforced? Hard-charging prosecutors have used their powers to over-charge defendants for years, thus coercing them to plead guilty to reduced offenses. How will Holder's guidelines change that reality?

In addition, and as Holder says, about one-half of all federal prisoners are serving time for drug offenses emanating from what he rightfully labeled the war on drugs. But as long as there is a market for illicit drugs, someone will provide them and make obscene amounts of money along the way. So until that reality is addressed, we will continue to fill prisons around the country with drug offenders.

Along those same lines, why did Holder not use the opportunity to announce his support to completely remove the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine, which has resulted in many people of color serving disparately long sentences?

A few years ago, the disparity was reduced from about 20 to 1 to 5 to 1, but why not remove it completely? And why did he also not come out in support of the bill pending in Congress to keep the federal government from interfering with people who are in compliance with their state's marijuana laws? Both of those measures would certainly reduce the number of people filling our state and federal prisons.

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