Mandatory Minimums: Legal, Civil Rights Groups Largely Positive on DOJ Shift

A variety of groups are weighing in on Attorney General Eric Holder’s move this week to soften the federal government's stance on mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug crimes.

The mandatory minimum sentence, a longstanding tool in prosecuting drug-related crimes, is about to become a little less mandatory at the federal level.

In a speech at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco on Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department (DOJ) would scale back prosecutions of certain types of defendants—particularly drug offenders who have no ties to gangs or cartels. Under the new policy, they would seek to send fewer drug offenders to federal prison for long terms and more to get drug treatment or to do community service. “Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” Holder said during his speech.

Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.

This shift drew a wide range of reactions from the legal world, including:

Advocacy Groups

The American Civil Liberties Union, while seeing room for improvement, was nonetheless heartened by Holder’s move. “First off, we should acknowledge that this is a big deal! This is the first speech by any attorney general calling for such massive criminal justice reforms,” Laura W. Murphy, the director of ACLU’s Washington office, wrote on its blog. The ACLU said it would continue to work to improve the situation for those convicted of crimes, noting the limitations of the DOJ’s policy change: “It’s great Holder is leading the way, but there is a limit to what he can accomplish by executive action alone. Congress needs to step up,” Murphy wrote.

Human Rights Watch said the policy change “may mark the beginning of the end of a quarter century of egregiously harsh sentences.” Beyond that, the group’s senior adviser for U.S. programs, Jamie Fellner, noted that it could help reassure the public that the system works. “Reforming federal drug sentencing policy will have an enormous impact both on the lives of those who break federal laws and on their families,” she wrote. “But more is at stake as well—above all, public faith in the integrity of the federal criminal justice system.”

Legal Groups

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers approved of the vision behind the change but reserved judgment concerning how it will play out. “Attorney General Holder said that he expects that there will be ‘setbacks and false starts’ and that he will encounter ‘resistance and opposition,’” said NACDL President Jerry J. Cox. “NACDL vows to carefully scrutinize the development and implementation of the vision articulated today by America’s chief law enforcement officer in an effort to ensure that he achieves the grand vision suggested in his remarks … to the American Bar Association.”

The National Association of Drug Court Professionals, meanwhile, used the opportunity to point out the potential benefits of an expansion of the drug court system. Drug courts, which are widespread in the states but less common at the federal level, focus on treatment options for low-level offenders. “The initiatives [Holder] outlined open the door for federal courts to further implement evidence-based practices and other alternatives, such as drug courts,” said U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett, who chairs the association’s board and presides over one of the first federal drug courts.  “As we have demonstrated in Mississippi, the drug court model can be applied in the federal system to ensure that federally charged offenders have the same opportunity to receive treatment and avoid incarceration.”

Police Groups

In an analysis piece by The New York Times looking at both Holder’s speech and a court ruling that New York City’s stop-and-frisk police policy is unconstitutional, Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said that many police chiefs are convinced that harsh policies are ineffective. However, he questioned what other options would be available to police. “There is a trade-off between the tactics that may be used and the issue of fairness,” Wexler said.

(photo by Ryan J. Reilly/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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