THE BLOG
09/11/2014 10:01 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2014

The Drug War and the Mass Incarceration It Caused: Where We Are and Where We Still Must Go (Part 3 of 5)

Where We Are (continued from Part 2)

6.) January - April: DOJ announced that it would be seeking to send the names of more low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, in federal prison, to President Obama for clemency consideration. Deputy Attorney General James Cole said that the president's recent decision to commute 8 inmates with crack cocaine convictions was "only a first step" and that "there are more low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who remain in prison, and who would likely have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of precisely the same offenses today."

Follow-up action from DOJ came in April, when Cole announced a plan to canvass the entire federal prison population to find inmates who committed low-level crimes and could be released early. This move could result in the release of thousands of low-level federal inmates caught up in the drug war. For a president who, hitherto, had the most conservative pardon record in recent history (e.g. in Obama's first term, he pardoned 1 in 50 applicants, while Ronald Reagan pardoned 1 in 3), such a shift is noteworthy. Indeed, as my fellow Huffington Post contributor, Anthony Papa, points out, "This sort of 'mass release' has not been seen since the 1970s when former President Gerald Ford extended amnesty to Vietnam draft dodgers."

7.) January: The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act, which, if enacted, would be the biggest overhaul in federal drug sentencing in decades. Although three amendments were added to the legislation creating new mandatory minimums, the legislation would lower mandatory minimum sentences for certain federal drug offenses. "It would also make the reform to the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity that Congress passed in 2010 retroactive, so that thousands of people sentenced under the old draconian and racially unjust disparity can leave prison early," according to the Drug Policy Alliance's Director of National Affairs, Bill Piper.

8.) February: Holder gave a landmark speech at Georgetown University calling on states to repeal the laws that prohibit nearly 6 million felons/ex-felons (one-third of whom are black) from voting. Holder called the "unnecessary and unjust" laws "vestiges" from our nation's racist past. And, as The New York Times editorial said of Holder's speech, "While he has no direct authority to change state laws, the weight of his words can help pave a path for legislative action in both Congress and statehouses around the country" (see No. 17 in Part 4).

9.) February: Holder told New York Times opinion columnist and former executive editor Bill Keller that criminal justice reform will be "a defining legacy for [the Obama] administration" (Keller also revealed that he'd be leaving NYT to join The Marshall Project, a new non-profit, non-partisan journalism organization dedicated to covering the U.S. criminal justice system). Just days before, in an exclusive interview with Douglas Blackmon (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II) at UVA's Miller Center, Holder provided a snippet of what that "legacy" might look like.

10.) March: Both The Nation and The New York Times ran articles revealing Attorney General Holder's refreshing bi-partisan moves to partner with Senator Rand Paul and other Republicans to achieve lasting/legislative change in the way of drug policy (see No. 7 above, and Nos. 17 and 18 in Part 4).

11.) March - July: Holder testified before the U.S. Sentencing Commission, in March, endorsing changes to the commission's Drug Quantity Table. The Sentencing Commission adopted the two-level sentencing reduction in April, which it estimates will affect approximately 70 percent of federal drug trafficking defendants, with their sentences decreasing an average of 11 months, or 17 percent, from 62 to 51 months on average.

In June, Holder announced that DOJ would urge the Sentencing Commission to make the aforementioned changes retroactive, which could affect up to 50,000 nonviolent offenders currently in jail, reducing their sentences by an average of more than 2 years, and saving taxpayers an estimated $2.4 billion. The following month, the Sentencing Commission voted to make the changes retroactive.

12.) April: News broke that three major corporations (Scopia Capital, DSM and Amica Mutual Insurance) divested a combined total of nearly $60 million from private prison giants Corrections Corporation of America* (CCA) and The GEO Group. This groundbreaking move came largely as a result of ColorOfChange.org's actions urging over 150 companies to "reconsider the financial, moral and political implications of private prisons and divest."

*Note: This is the same Corrections Corporation of America (the largest private prison company in the U.S.) that said, in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the following: "Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. This possible growth depends on a number of factors we cannot control, including crime rates and sentencing patterns in various jurisdictions and acceptance of privatization. The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them."

13.) April: DOJ announced that it will begin collecting data on stops, searches and arrests made in 5 U.S. cities to weed out possible racial biases (i.e. racial profiling) within the criminal justice system. Additionally, a $4.75 million federal grant will be awarded to recipients who compete for the funds to work with their local law enforcement to analyze arrest data and find ways to reduce any biases they find, particularly toward young minority men. The grants for data collection align with the goals of President Obama's "My Brother's Keeper" initiative.

14.) May: Bipartisan U.S. House vote on medical marijuana shocked political observers of all stripes. The vote was for an amendment that would prevent the Drug Enforcement Agency from targeting medical marijuana in states where it is legal, and carried large implications.

For Part 4, which continues with numbers 15 - 20 of the chronological rundown of "Where We Are," check here...