Unequal drug sentences a big disappointment, Holder says

Attorney General Eric Holder

Crack and powder cocaine are nearly identical drugs, and outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder says the biggest disappointment of his tenure is that the justice system still punishes crack offenders with harsher penalties.

Holder, who will leave office once his successor is confirmed, said progress has been made, but the gulf is still wide between sentences for crack offenders – who are often black – and powder offenders – who are often white.

Holder spoke with Bill Keller and Tim Golden of The Marshall Project, a nonprofit online news source that launched on Saturday.

Holder said:

I’m proud of the fact that – in 2010, I guess – we reduced that ratio, the crack-powder ratio, from 100-to-1 to about 17- or 18-to-1. I’m still disappointed that, given the lack of a pharmacological distinction between crack and cocaine, the ratio is not 1-to-1. You know, it was the product of a lot of hard work that the president was intimately involved in. But I think he would agree with me that that number should be at 1-to-1.

Holder said he hopes every federal district will have a drug court by the end of President Barack Obama’s second term. The courts focus on treatment, rather than incarceration for crimes linked to drug addiction.

It’ll be up to successor Loretta Lynch, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, to make drug courts a priority. She was nominated this month and must be confirmed by the Senate before taking office.

Prison reform has been a major goal of Holder’s, and he said the biggest accomplishment of his tenure has been the effort to reshape the federal system through the Smart on Crime Initiative.

But he’s had opponents, including many federal prosecutors who have fought his attempt to eliminate mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders.

Holder said prosecutors must reconsider whether tough sentences for drug convictions serve the public good.

According to the interview:

It was a way of breaking some really entrenched thinking and asking prosecutors, investigators, the bureaucracy – to think about how we do our jobs in a different way – to ask the question of whether excessively long prison sentences for nonviolent offenders really served any good purpose, how we used enhancement papers, moving discretion to prosecutors and asking them to make individualized determinations about what they should do in cases, as opposed to have some big policy sent to them from Washington.

Prison reform has also been a major issue for some of Holder’s biggest critics. He said it’s “both jaw-dropping and heart-warming” to see big-name Republicans like Texas Governor Rick Perry, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and former presidential candidate Newt Gingrich making reform a priority, despite some disagreements on how it’s done.

States are rethinking their prison systems as they feel the financial burdens of incarceration.

But if reform is only done to save money, Holder said, offenders will bounce in and out of prison. The key should be rehabilitation, he said, and making sure offenders have the resources they need to transition from prison to their home neighborhoods.

“If this is done correctly you not only save money, you keep the American people safe by cutting down on the recidivism rate,” Holder told the Marshall Project.

Reach Jeffrey Benzing at 412-315-0265 or at jbenzing@publicsource.org. Follow him on Twitter @jabenzing.