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Major sentencing reform needed, says AG Holder

Eric Holder-600In an interview with NPR that aired Wednesday, Atty. Gen. Eric Holder said there are too many people in prison and it is time for federal sentencing reform.

He could announce major changes as early as next week.

"The war on drugs is now 30, 40 years old. There have been a lot of unintended consequences," said Holder in the NPR segment. "There's been a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color."

Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said Holder is right to condemn mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

"Both he and the president have an opportunity to leave a lasting legacy by securing substantial, long overdue drug policy reform," said Piper.

A team of lawyers at the Justice Department is reportedly working on proposals that Holder could present as early as a speech next week. Some of the proposals could include de-prioritizing low-level drug offense.

"(We) can certainly change our enforcement priorities, and so we have some control in that way," Holder said. "How we deploy our agents, what we tell our prosecutors to charge, but I think this would be best done if the executive branch and the legislative branch work together to look at this whole issue and come up with changes that are acceptable to both."

Holder's remarks come amid what some describe as "unprecedented momentum for major criminal justice reform." For example:

• Several bi-partisan reform bills have been introduced in Congress and a left/right consensus is building.

• A few months ago, a coalition of over 175 artists, actors, athletes, elected officials and advocates, brought together by hip-hop pioneer Russell Simmons and Dr. Boyce Watkins, presented an open letter to President Obama urging him to tackle mass incarceration and drug policy reform.

• Voters in Colorado and Washington voted to end marijuana prohibition last November.

• Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said he wants to have hearings on both sentencing reform and resolving the state/federal conflict over marijuana.

Meanwhile, the Drug Policy Alliance is urging the Obama Administration to support bi-partisan sentencing reform legislation in Congress, such as:

• The Safety Valve Act, introduced by Democratic Sen. Leahy and Republican Sen. Rand Paul, and in the U.S. House by Democratic Congressman Bobby Scott and Republican Congressman Thomas Massie. The bills would allow federal judges to sentence nonviolent offenders below the federal mandatory minimum sentence if a lower sentence is warranted.

• The Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced by Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Sen. Mike Lee, which would lower mandatory minimums for certain drug offenses, make the recent reduction in the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity retroactive, and give judges more discretion to sentence certain offenders below the mandatory minimum sentence if warranted.

• The Public Safety Enhancement Act, introduced by Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz and Democratic Congressman Bobby Scott, which would allow certain federal prisoners to be transferred from prison to community supervision earlier if they take rehabilitation classes, saving taxpayer money while improving public safety.

The Drug Policy Alliance is also advocating that the Obama Administration:

• Nominate a drug czar who is going to prioritize reducing the federal prison population and undoing racial disparities.

• Issue directives keeping federal law enforcement from interfering with state efforts to regulate marijuana instead of criminalizing it

"The U.S. is at a pivotal moment right now where fundamental change to our bloated, racially-biased criminal justice system is possible," said Piper.

"But change isn't inevitable; it will take significant leadership by Attorney General Holder, President Obama, and both Democrats and Republicans in Congress."

(This story reflects information from the Drug Policy Alliance. For more information, visit www.drugpolicy.org.)

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