7 Unprecedented Moves President Obama and AG Holder Have Made to Address Drug War and Mass Incarceration

Over the past six months, President Obama and Attorney General Holder have made a series of moves indicating that they are serious about reducing mass incarceration and fixing our broken criminal justice system.  And it is worth pointing out that the have received almost universal praise from advocates, elected officials and the media, while there has been hardly any voices in opposition.

Here are seven significant moves by President Obama and AG Holder over the last six months that have garnished them extensive praise and admiration.

White House Allows Marijuana Legalization Laws to Proceed in Colorado and Washington

Colorado and Washington made history in November 2012 when they voted to legally regulate the production, distribution and sale of marijuana. But there was much uncertainty about how President Obama and the federal government would respond. In August, Attorney General Eric Holder informed the governors of Washington and Colorado that the Department of Justice would allow the states to implement their laws.

AG Holder Slams Mass Incarceration and Mandatory Minimum Drug Laws

In November, Attorney General Eric Holder offered the Obama administration's most forceful critique to date of U.S. mass incarceration policies, at a meeting of the hemisphere's security ministers in Medellín, Colombia. He also emphasized the Obama administration's efforts to scale back mandatory minimum sentencing policies:

“The path we are currently on is far from sustainable. As we speak, roughly one out of every 100 American adults is behind bars.  Although the United States comprises just five percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.  While few would dispute the fact that incarceration has a role to play in any comprehensive public safety strategy, it’s become evident that such widespread incarceration is both inadvisable and unsustainable.  It requires that we routinely spend billions of dollars on prison construction – and tens of billions more, on an annual basis, to house those who are convicted of crimes.  It carries both human and moral costs that are too much to bear.  And it results in far too many Americans serving too much time in too many prisons – and beyond the point of serving any good law enforcement reason.”

AG Holder Says Banks Can Accept Deposits From Legalized Marijuana Businesses

In January, Attorney General Eric Holder said the Obama administration will announce guidelines that will make it easier for banks to deal with state-legalized marijuana businesses. Twenty states and Washington D.C. have legalized marijuana for medical use; two of those states (Colorado and Washington) recently legalized marijuana like alcohol. Many banks have been afraid to open checking or savings accounts for legalized marijuana businesses out of fear of breaking federal law. As a result these businesses are forced to deal with large amounts of cash, creating public safety risks for employees, bystanders, and police officers.

President Obama: Marijuana No More Dangerous Than Alcohol

In an interview with the New Yorker in January, President Obama spoke about his past drug use, said marijuana was no more dangerous than alcohol, talked about racial disparities in marijuana arrests, and said the new laws legalizing marijuana in Colorado and Washington are ‘important. This interview made worldwide news and favorable press for President Obama.

White House Seeks Clemency Candidates for People with Drug Convictions

In November, President Obama was receiving heat for his stinginess in using his clemency and pardon powers. In late December, Obama granted eight clemencies for people serving long sentences for crack cocaine.   But then, the administration followed through in a bigger way, by taking the unprecedented step of encouraging defense lawyers to suggest inmates whom the president might let out of prison early. According to the New York Times, “The Justice Department wants low-level drug criminals who were sentenced under tough laws from the days of the crack epidemic to ask the president for early release from prison.”

President Obama Wants to Stop 'School-to-Prison Pipeline' for Minorities

Yesterday, President Obama announced his plans to launch an initiative aimed at improving the lives of young black and Latino men and to turn back what has become known as the "school-to-prison pipeline."

In the Los Angeles Times, a White House official pointed to recent guidelines that the Departments of Education and Justice sent to school districts that were designed to scale back  "zero tolerance" school discipline policies. Zero-tolerance policies have had disproportionately harsh impacts on minority students, particularly boys, the two departments noted.

AG Holder Urges States to Lift Bans on Felons’ Voting

Yesterday, Attorney General Holder called for the repeal of laws that prohibit millions of felons from voting. The New York Times described the move as the Obama administration’s determination to elevate issues of criminal justice and race in the president’s second term and create a lasting civil rights legacy. Today the New York Times came out with aforceful editorial in support AG Holder’s speech and called for states to repeal outdated felon disenfranchisement laws.

I have been heartened to hear the President and Attorney General speak out on criminal justice, mass incarceration and drug policy issues so frequently over the last six months. What is striking is that they generated extensive national press and it almost universally has been positive.

We are obviously a still a long way from dismantling the disastrous drug war, which remains entrenched in a complex web of local, state and federal policies. In the U.S., more than a half a million people remain behind bars for nothing more than a drug law violation, and three–quarters of a million people are still arrested every year for marijuana.

But President Obama and AG Holder are showing that the tides seem to be turning. Let's hope that more and more politicians realize that for the sake of the public’s safety and health – and their careers – it makes sense to be smart on crime, not "tough on crime."


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