5 Reasons Why This Week Was Historic for Ending America's War on Drugs and Cruel Incarceration Policies
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It happened at a dizzying pace. One big victory for the drug and prison reform community after another. The Attorney General addressed our massive prison problem, the DEA continues to be scrutinized for its shady law enforcement tactics, a federal judge ruled the NYPD's stop-and-frisk tactic unconstitutional, a major media personality admitted he was wrong about marijuana's health risks, and New York City's Comptroller released a report explaining why marijuana should be legalized.
All of this is great news for advocates of sensible drug policy, civil rights, privacy rights, and prison reform.
1. Eric Holder Gets "Smarter On Crime"
On Monday, US Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech at the American Bar Association's annual meeting in which he announced a major shift in criminal justice policy aimed at addressing unfairness in the justice system. Although the US has only 5 percent of the world's population, it has 25 percent of its prisoners. Almost half of federal inmates are serving time on drug charges. "The war on drugs is now 30, 40 years old," Holder told NPR earlier this month. "There has been a lot of unintended consequences. There's been a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color."
The Justice Department sent a policy memorandum to all US attorney offices on Monday instructing federal prosecutors to exclude mention of specific quantities of illegal substances in their indictments for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with no significant criminal history or ties to large-scale gangs or cartels. Additional new policies include increasing use of drug treatment programs as alternatives to incarceration and expanding a "compassionate release" program for inmates facing "extraordinary circumstances" like old age or poor health who have served a significant part of their sentences and pose no threat to society. "We must face the reality that our system is, in too many ways, broken," he said in his speech. "And with an outsized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, to deter and to rehabilitate—not merely to warehouse and to forget."
These new approaches, which Holder calls the "Smart On Crime" initiative, aim to ease overcrowding in federal prisons and alleviate the cost to taxpayers. The attorney general cited the success of 17 states that have experimented with programs aimed at reducing recidivism—such as diverting drug offenders into treatment programs and expanding job training—instead of toward prison construction. States like Texas, Arkansas and Kentucky have experimented with ways to incarcerate fewer low-level drug offenders, saving hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. "While the federal prison system has continued to slowly expand, significant state-level reductions have led to three consecutive years of decline in America's overall prison population—including, in 2012, the largest drop ever experienced in a single year," Holder said. "Clearly, these strategies can work." (This bold reversal of the government's tough-on-crime rhetoric was featured on the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post on the day of Holder's speech.)
2. NYPD Stop-and-Frisk Ruled Unconstitutional
Later on Monday morning, a federal judge ruled that the New York Police Department's use of stop-and-frisk was unconstitutional, violating the rights of minorities in New York City. Judge Shira Scheindlin's ruling is a blow to the crime fighting legacy of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and police commissioner Ray Kelly, who credit police stops with reducing major crime in the city to historic lows. But according to Scheindlin, the crime-fighting efficacy of the policy is irrelevant. "Many police practices may be useful for fighting crime…but because they are unconstitutional, they cannot be used, no matter how effective," she wrote in her 195-page decision. She concluded that stop-and-frisk demonstrates an institutional disregard for the Fourth Amendment—which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government—as well as the Equal Protection Clause under the 14th Amendment.