Today is the first day that The Marshall Project went live. It is an investigative journalism project led by Bill Keller, former Executive Editor of the New York Times. Several of the pieces focus on the death penalty and inadequate lawyering. This excerpt from an interview with A.G. Eric Holder focuses on sentencing disparities and his rejection of the idea that prosecutors should routinely seek to maximize penalties. - gwc
Eric Holder on His Legacy, His Regrets, and His Feelings About the Death Penalty | The Marshall Project
"The Marshall Project: You’ve been pretty outspoken on criminal justice issues across the board – more outspoken than your boss, actually. What would you single out as your proudest accomplishment in the area of the criminal justice system, and what would you single out as your biggest disappointment?
Holder: In January 2013 I told the people in the Justice Department after the re-election that I wanted to focus on reforming the federal criminal justice system. I made an announcement in August of that year in San Francisco, when we rolled out the Smart on Crime initiative. It was a way of breaking some really entrenched thinking and asking prosecutors, investigators, the bureaucracy – to think about how we do our jobs in a different way – to ask the question of whether excessively long prison sentences for nonviolent offenders really served any good purpose, how we used "enhancement papers"*, moving discretion to prosecutors and asking them to make individualized determinations about what they should do in cases, as opposed to have some big policy sent to them from Washington.
[*Enhancement papers recommend a harsher sentence based on the defendant’s prior record. In 2010 Holder overturned a Bush-era policy that prosecutors should seek enhancement whenever possible.]
And I think that by and large – not without opposition, to be totally honest – the federal system has embraced that vision. And I think that we have started to see the kind of changes that I hoped we would see.And the biggest disappointment?I’m proud of the fact that – in 2010, I guess – we reduced that ratio, the "crack-powder ratio", from 100-to-1 to about 17- or 18-to-1. I’m still disappointed that, given the lack of a pharmacological distinction between crack and cocaine, the ratio is not 1-to-1. You know, it was the product of a lot of hard work that the president was intimately involved in. But I think he would agree with me that that number should be at 1-to-1.
Crack cocaine offenders, who are disproportionately black, are subject to much more severe penalties than powder cocaine offenders, who are more likely to be white.
Q. Before the second term is over, could there be a push for a 1-to-1 ratio?
A. That is something that I know the President believes in, that I believe in. One of the things that I’d like to see happen before the end of this administration is that there would be a "drug court" in every district in this country. As I speak to my successor, the 83rd Attorney General, and as I speak to the President, I’m going to push them to make that a goal for this administration, to have a drug court in every district by the end of Barack Obama’s second term."
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