Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that Eric Holder has decided that in the fifth year of our cocaine sniffing, cannabis smoking president’s term that he ought to make a policy decision to do less harm to people who are, if anything, victims of our current system. If you haven’t heard, he’s calling for federal prosecutors to not put drug quantities on indictments. This will circumvent the automatic mandatory minimum sentences, which Congress, through years of trying to prove what big dicked tough on crime guys they are, have pushed to levels that make the Salem Witch Trials seem reasonable. So now judges will have discretion. But will they really?
When Chris Hayes was covering this the other day, he noted that it isn’t that the mandatory minimums took away discretion; it is just that they took away discretion from judges and gave it to prosecutors. I don’t see how this new policy really changes anything. After all, Holder has dug out a number of big exceptions to the policy. It can’t be related to gang activity, for instance. The discretion is still all theirs. What I expect to see is the exact same behavior from federal prosecutors with the exception that they will now file paperwork to explain why this case had to be thrown into the mandatory minimum pile.
Another issue is that this is just federal law. Most people serving time for drug charges are not in for a federal crime. It is true that over half of all the inmates in federal prison are there for drug crimes and this is only 20% for state inmates. But there are so many people in state prisons that there are almost three times as many drug felons in the state system. And this says nothing of those in local jails, which amount to about three quarters of a million at any given time.
The biggest problem, however, is that the “felon” label itself is what ruins lives. Being labeled a felon for the rest of your life is a much worse punishment than having to serve 5 years instead of 3 or 1. This is what most people don’t get about the system. There is no such thing as “paying your debt to society.” Our society has decided that a felon never pays his debt to society. That felon is reminded of this every time he fills out a job application or, in some areas, when he applies for food stamps. (And yes, I know that felons can, over time have their charges reduced and eliminated. But that takes time and money—two resources that are usually in short supply to the “ex”-felon.)
As of now, we’ve had three presidents in a row who committed drug felonies. (It doesn’t matter if Clinton inhaled or not.) Yet all of these men have continued the Drug War with great vigor. They’ve destroyed countless lives even as they were lucky enough to avoid prosecution. A felony conviction would have destroyed the lives of Clinton and Obama. Since Bush never needed to work a day in his life (and pretty much hasn’t), he never had anything to fear. But all of these men should have known better. They are all vile hypocrites and they deserve to rot in Hell for this reason alone.
As for the Holder announcement: time will tell. But I’m not too hopeful.