Eric Holder’s Reforms to Minimum Drug Sentencing Don’t Address Structural Racism
Wednesday, August 14, 2013
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
The United States accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population but incarcerates almost a quarter of the planet’s prisoners, leading the world in prisoner-to-population ratio. Attorney General Eric Holder, in a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco on Monday, outlined some policies meant to address this problem, saying that the U.S. Justice Department plans to change how it prosecutes some nonviolent drug offenders, ending a policy of mandatory minimum prison sentences. Here’s a bit of what he said.
ERIC HOLDER, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: It’s clear, as we come together today, that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no truly good law enforcement reason. This is why I have today mandated a modification of the Justice Department’s charging policies so that certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences.
NOOR: Now joining us to talk about Eric Holder’s announcement and what it really means is Jack Cole. He’s cofounder and board chair of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, also known as LEAP. Jack is a retired detective lieutenant after a 26-year career with the New Jersey State Police, 14 years in narcotics, mostly as an undercover officer.
Thank you so much for joining us, Jack.
JACK COLE, COFOUNDER, LEAP: You’re welcome.
NOOR: So, Jack, give us your reaction to this announcement. Is it a significant change? And will this law reduce America’s huge, massive prison population?
COLE: I don’t think it’s going to reduce it by much. We’ve got over 2 million people in prison, and the last I saw was 2.2 million, far more than any other country in the world per capita. And all this is really talking about is reducing some mandatory minimum sentencing on people who are being sentenced in the future for nonviolent drug offenses. That’s not going to do anything about the people who are already in there. And his plan for doing this is that he’s going to suggest to the federal prosecutors that they just don’t put in the amount of drugs when they do the criminal charge for the court, since it’s the amount of drugs that initiates as mandatory minimum sentencing.
I got some real problems with it. One of those problems is even if this does work, it’s a policy. It’s not a law. And that simply means that the very next AG to get put into that position can decide they’re going to change it back. Certainly when we have a new president in, that president can decide we’re going to change it back. If we’re going to do this stuff, we need laws in order to be in place, not just the whims of people doing it.
NOOR: And, I mean, if you just skim the media coverage of this, you know, a lot of the headlines say this is, like, a dramatic shift and this is huge news, it shows that Eric Holder is finally addressing institutional racism through his policies. Talk more about why you kind of disagree with that take on this news.
COLE: Well, to me, institutionalized racism is one of the very base foundations of the war on drugs.
NOOR: [incompr.] Jack, you are yourself a former high-ranking police officer. So your perspective is from within this system itself.
COLE: That’s true. I spent 26 years in law enforcement, 14 years undercover in narcotics. I worked everything up to billion-dollar international cocaine and heroin trafficking rings. And nothing I did in that 26 years reduced the number of people abusing drugs in this country by so much as one person.
Those of us at LEAP–and there’s now over 100,000 police, judges, prosecutors, prison officials, federal agents, and supporters in 120 countries that we represent–those of us at LEAP think that this is not even the goal anymore of the drug war. The goal isn’t to reduce the amount of people out there abusing drugs. It’s become a numbers game. It’s used to to get people promoted. It’s used to raise more money for law enforcement.
You know, in the 43 years that we’ve been fighting the war on drugs–this, by the way, started in 1970. That was the year I went undercover in narcotics, so I’ve seen this grow from the very beginning. And you’ve got to be an old codger like me to talk about this, because think about it. This has lasted two generations, 43 years. Most of the people alive in this country never lived under a system that didn’t have a war on drugs. So I know what it was like before we did this, and I know what it’s like now, and I saw the changes, and the changes are unbelievable. How any drug warrior out there can say that what we’re doing makes any sense I don’t know.
For instance, you know, there’s only one drug, one social drug known to humans that we’ve had any success in reducing the amount of people using it in the last hundred years, and that drug, it happens to be a legal drug. It’s also the most dangerous drug known to us on a social level. It’s also the most addictive drug, far more addictive than heroin. And that drug happens to be the nicotine in cigarettes. Now, in 1985, 42 percent of the people in this country smoked cigarettes. And we said, we’ve got to do something about this. We’re just killing too many people from cancer and everything. Well, we didn’t start a war on cigarette smokers. We started a very strong educational program.
And then we pretty much regulated them out of existence. We said, you can smoke, but you can’t smoke in a public place. You can smoke at home, you can smoke in your car. And we certainly didn’t condone it. You know, the drug warriors will tell you, well, if you legalize these drugs, you’re condoning the use of it so more of our kids will use it. That’s not so. You don’t have to condone things to legalize it. We certainly don’t condone cigarette smoking. You know, 30 years ago in your office there where you are, you would have had an ashtray on every single table. You would have been able to get on an airplane and smoke your way to wherever you were going to go. Today, smokers don’t feel condoned. They barely feel tolerated.
NOOR: So Eric Holder also mentioned in his speech that black male offenders have received nearly 20 percent longer sentences than white males. And this is something that’s been highlighted in the media. You take an issue with that number. You say it’s much too low, the disparity between the sentences that African-Americans get and that whites get. Can you talk about that? And you’re also–you’re also–.
COLE: [inaud.] because he’s talking about all crimes. But it is the drug crimes that he went on television to talk about, and it is the drug crimes that puts the most black people in prison. And the fact of the matter is today a black man serves an average of six years in prison for exactly the same drug crime that a white man serves four years in prison for. That’s 50 percent longer sentence, not 20.
NOOR: And finally, you’ve also said that there’s reason to be skeptical that these changes will actually be instituted in the same way that you hope, that’s promised. Can you talk a little bit about why you’re skeptical of this actually playing out and actually making a difference in the incarceration rates?
COLE: Everybody at LEAP is quite skeptical that this will ever come to pass. Now, this isn’t the first time Mr. Holder has got up and said really good things about changes in drug policy. In 2009, he actually sent out a memo to all the U.S. attorneys, saying that from now on they will not arrest anybody for a marijuana violation in states where they’ve passed medical marijuana laws. Where it’s a law of the state, the federal people were not going to go in and arrest people for doing that.
And yet the fact is that this was the third year that Obama was in office, and in those three years, he’d already arrested more people for those violations in states that said it’s legal than the Bush administration did in its entire eight years in office. So you can’t just listen to the person. You’ve got to see what is the truth, what are they really going to do.
NOOR: Jack Cole, thank you so much for joining us.
Jack Cole was the cofounder and board chair of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, also known as LEAP.
COLE: Yes, thank you for having me.
NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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