August 16, 2015
Holder's Proposal Is Insufficient: Congress Needs to Decriminalize Drugs
By Carl L. Hart
Nearly three weeks after President Obama acknowledged, "racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws," Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would no longer charge low-level drug offenders with offenses that impose severe mandatory sentences. Holder said he also favored the release of certain nonviolent elderly prisoners and that he supported local and state courts handing more drug-related issues. Other proposals suggested by the Attorney General -- such as eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses -- will require congressional action.
Holder's remarks were unprecedented. In the 42 years since the inception of the war on drugs, no previous attorney general has even suggested that our drug policies might be wrong, let alone racist. The nation's top law enforcement officer said that the war on drugs has amounted to "a kind of decimation of certain communities, particularly communities of color."
He's right. All of the evidence supports this conclusion. Examination of marijuana arrests, which account for more than half of all drug arrests, show that blacks are about four times more likely to be arrested for that drug than whites even though they use it at similar rates. Crack cocaine arrests, which carry mandatory minimum sentences, also disproportionately fall on blacks. More than 80 percent of those sentenced for crack cocaine offenses are black, despite the fact that the majority of users of the drug are white. Holder aptly noted that we have been "coldly efficient in our incarceration efforts," especially when it comes to incarcerating black boys and men. And now, largely because drug laws have been disproportionately applied to black offenders, one in three black males born after 2000 will spend time in prison if we don't radically shift course.
The question before me -- a father of a son in this age group and a drug expert -- is whether Holder's proposals amount to the needed radical change? They do not. But, that wasn't the goal. The attorney general understands that his authority to radically change drug policy is limited. His proposed reforms amount to us learning to crawl before walking when running is the goal.