Attorney General Eric Holder has said and moved to do what has long needed to be done in the hopelessly flawed, failed drug war: That is to expand the criteria that the Justice Department will use to release hundreds of prisoners that are serving or have served years of draconian sentences for petty, low-level drug use or sale. But that can only come if federal prosecutors who are tasked with overseeing the petitions from prisoners for release approve their request for sentence commutation by President Obama.
This is far from a sure thing for many of those who seek release. At first glance, most would probably have a good case for release. Their crimes did not involve violence or actual physical harm to others. After years of incarceration, most could hardly be deemed a threat to commit violence on release to others or a threat to society. The even more powerful argument for their speedy release is that Congress at Obama's urging has tweaked the drug laws to modify the grotesque disparities that punished the sale and use of crack cocaine far out of proportion to that of other drug use.
The result of this was that the federal government virtually single-handedly accounted for the astronomical surge in the number of mostly poor African-American that have swelled the numbers in federal prisons the past two decades. Numbers that have ballooned so high, that even legions of GOP conservative lawmakers alarmed at the dire financial drain on prison and law enforcement resources on warehousing so many drug offenders have tossed in the towel and backed drug law modifications.
But the obstacles to release still remain daunting for many and there's still the heavy odor of unfairness, even injustice, in who will be released. Right from the start, to be eligible, a prisoner must have served at least 10 years and show impeccable conduct during their time in jail. That in effect means that of the tens of thousands in federal prisons for drug-related offenses only about 2000 would even get a look from federal prosecutors and that number would be likely reduced to only a few hundred who may ultimately walk free. The operative here even with them is "may." Obama will have the final say on whose sentences he'll OK a commute on.
The caution that Obama and the Justice Department is expected to take on who gets out is overlain by the very reason that the gaping disparities in drug sentencing came about in the first place. That's the public perception that crack cocaine was more dangerous and threatening, and led to waves of gang shoot-outs, turf battles and thousands of terrorized residents in poor black communities. In some instances, that was true. Years back, and police and prosecutors were right to hit back hard at the violence.
But then as now, the majority of those who deal and use crack cocaine and other drugs weren't violence-prone gang members, but poor and increasingly female, young blacks. They clearly needed treatment not long prison stretches.
The big difference then was that the top-heavy drug use by young whites -- and the crime and violence that go with it -- has never stirred any public outcry for mass arrests, prosecutions and tough prison sentences for white drug dealers, many of whom deal drugs that are directly linked to serious crime and violence. Whites unlucky enough to get popped for drug possession are treated with compassion, prayer sessions, expensive psychiatric counseling, treatment and rehab programs, and drug diversion programs. And they should be. But so should those blacks and other non-whites that were victimized by discriminatory drug laws.
The greatest fallout from the nation's failed drug policy has been that it has further embedded the widespread notion that the drug problem is exclusively a black problem. This made it easy for on-the-make politicians to grab votes, garner press attention and balloon state prison budgets to jail more black offenders, while continuing to feed the illusion that the nation was winning the drug war and that the public was more secure as a result of the war.
Obama and Holder have repeatedly acknowledged that this was a delusion that has wrecked countless lives and bred even greater cynical contempt among minorities for the criminal justice system. This was no accident. The policy deliberately targeted those communities due to a lethal mix of racism, criminal justice system profit (someone has got to fill up the cells to justify building more prisons, hiring and maintaining waves of corrections officers and bloating state budgets in the process), political expediency and media fed public mania over drug use.
An overzealous Justice Department egged on by politicians who sought to wave their drug warrior credentials before voters helped create the mess that has passed the last quarter century as the nation's drug enforcement policy. Obama and Holder took a huge step toward undoing that mess. Now their task is to lengthen those steps and undo more of that mess.
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