Given the trend of overprosecution these days, which Glenn Reynolds has thoroughly documented, this decision from the Department of Justice comes as at least a potentially pleasant surprise. Attorney General Eric Holder will instruct federal prosecutors to tread lightly with non-violent drug offenders with no organized-crime ties in order to avoid the lengthy mandatory sentences that follow from more zealous prosecution. It’s a first step for the Obama administration’s long-promised reform of the War on Drugs:
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is set to announce Monday that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with no ties to gangs or large-scale drug organizations will no longer be charged with offenses that impose severe mandatory sentences.
The new Justice Department policy is part of a comprehensive prison reform package that Holder will reveal in a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco, according to senior department officials. He is also expected to introduce a policy to reduce sentences for elderly, nonviolent inmates and find alternatives to prison for nonviolent criminals. …
Holder is calling for a change in Justice Department policies to reserve the most severe penalties for drug offenses for serious, high-level or violent drug traffickers. He has directed his 94 U.S. attorneys across the country to develop specific, locally tailored guidelines for determining when federal charges should be filed and when they should not.
“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason,” Holder plans to say. “We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.”
The mandatory-sentencing laws came as a result of rising anger over lenient judges and soft sentencing in the 1970s that turned prisons into turnstiles. Repeat offenders would commit more violent crimes, get released, and then commit even more. The laws were intended to force judges to lock violent criminals away for significant periods of time, not so much in the cause of rehabilitation of then-current felons but as a deterrent to others who might follow in their footsteps. However, the use of mandatory minimums spread to the war on drugs and widened to non-violent crimes as well, resulting in unjust sentencing for relatively minor crimes.
Honestly, this sounds like a good idea outside of the drug war, too. It would have been a good idea in Florida, for instance, had prosecutors rejected a second-degree murder charge for George Zimmerman and had charged him with manslaughter or negligent homicide instead, which would not have required the state to play the race card in order to prove a “depraved” state of mind. On the federal level, such restraint might have been a good idea in the Bradley Manning court-martial, too; instead of pushing a charge of “aiding and abetting the enemy,” which was overkill, they could have concentrated on the actual crimes of leaking nearly three-quarters of a million classified documents. In both cases, a little prosecutorial discretion would have done wonders for their credibility.
Will the Obama administration address prosecutorial zealotry in other contexts than the war on drugs? How about addressing the rapid expansion of criminalization that threatens liberty on a wider scale, too? This is a good first step, perhaps, but it’s only a very small one.
Meanwhile, did you know that the country’s Drug Czar is leaving his post? Did you know his name? If not, perhaps we don’t need a drug czar at all, McClatchy’s Rob Hotakainen postulates:
U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske is leaving office unceremoniously, forgotten long before he was ever known to most Americans.
But for those leading the push to legalize marijuana, he’ll be remembered as the tough-talking former police chief from Seattle who never yielded on the question of legalization, always warning of the health dangers linked to smoking pot. That stance put him at odds with the growing majority of Americans who now back legalization.
As Kerlikowske, 63, heads for a possible job as the U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner, his exit prompts suggestions that America’s drug czar has become irrelevant and whether President Barack Obama should bother with a replacement.
“One of the most helpful things the president can do right now is to not spend money on filling that position,” said Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, whose office stopped prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana cases in 2010.
But legalization opponents say it would be a mistake to eliminate the office. They see it as a crucial vehicle for making clear to Americans the dangers and damages of a wide range of other drugs – from methamphetamine to cocaine to heroin – that the U.S. public wants kept illegal. Kevin Sabet, who served as an adviser on drug issues to Obama and former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, said the drug czar could serve as “a powerful conduit for the direction of drug policy.”
Or the administration could nominate another non-entity like Kerlikowske, which might be the same thing as eliminating the post, only with a salary still attached. Frankly, I don’t think we need any kind of czars at all, especially not this position. When it first came into being, the drug czar was the President’s close aide that coordinated anti-drug efforts across several different Cabinet departments. Now most of those efforts are concentrated in either the DoJ and DHS, and those efforts can be handled by sub-secretary liaisons rather than a “czar.”