Avoiding Shortsightedness in Prison Reform

Eric Holder isn’t using prison reform as a means to rehab his image

 Why Go Easy on Junkies? Part II
Evan Vucci:APLast week, Attorney General Eric Holder called for the reform of mandatory minimum prison sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. Almost as quickly, Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson dismissed the move as symbolism. In “Eric Holder’s Drug War Speech: Don’t Get Too Excited Yet,” Dickinson predicts that Holder’s proposed policy changes will have little impact. Why? In a nutshell, too many inmates. Then Dickinson adds, “We’re not used to hearing U.S. Attorneys General talk this way.” Now, couldn’t that have been your title, Tim?

Writing for the investigative nonprofit ProPublica, Cora Currier implied a different sort of conspiracy. “The Sweeping Presidential Power to Help Prisoners that Holder didn’t Mention” suggests a betrayal of those given life sentences for possession of drugs with the intent to sell. Currier’s point is that Holder “skipped mention of the sweeping power the president has to shorten or forgive a federal prisoner’s sentence,” whereas I think aggressively prosecuted drug offenders don’t need rescuing from the president. Instead, it’s the system that needs to change. I’m also inclined to remind Currier that Holder’s avoidance of the hot potato of clemency and pardons in his speech does not a conspiracy make.
 So come on you guys, give the rigidly uninteresting bureaucrat a break already!

Prison ReformPresidential requests for commutations, pardons, etc. are kept in special jars on scary political shelves. When the fingertips of any administration brush past – let alone stop and try to open one – all speculative hell breaks loose. For all the wrong reasons, the ability to grant clemency is a highly controversial presidential power. And the media would go thermonuclear if it was somehow applied to nonviolent drug offenders en masse. At the mere mention of such a thought crime, I can just picture the faces of tough-on-crime congressional desk pounders in Washington melting, Raiders of the Lost Ark-style.

Public opinion, too, would no doubt have Vietnam-era draft-dodgers faring better in the polls than “those people” locked behind modern day prison bars, especially after so many years of Americans hoping they can incarcerate their way out of crime.

I can hear it now: “We can’t fix healthcare, but on whim we let murders ‘outta prison by the busload?”

I vote we avoid such shortsightedness as we sort through those hot potatoes inevitably left out of the Attorney General’s otherwise groundbreaking speech. Besides, where’s the mystery? The prison industrial complex is massive, and it’s dependent on the excessively long sentencing of young, strong, worker bee inmates. It will resist reform more vehemently than a cat being held over a bathtub. So if Holder omitted from his speech a statement about a topic that would send conservatives into a tailspin as soon as the president’s hands touch one of those special jars, big deal. The fight over Obamacare would pale in comparison. And besides, the speech was well crafted and widely shared without it. So I say that, for now, let’s give this particular beleaguered bureaucrat credit for using his position to defend both taxpayers and those trapped in a cycle of drug addiction and recidivism.

Not everyone will benefit from the outset, regardless of how long they’ve been stuck in prison. But it’s a little early to point fingers at who’s not doing enough, or which (as of yet nonexistent prison reform law) fails to measure up. Nobody’s rooting for bureaucracy. We’re just lookin’ at one giant mountain here, yet Holder managed to get the media, politicians, and the public to turn their collective necks in a direction that will allow more and more of us to recognize the increasingly large, legally discriminated-against underclass of felon Americans created by excessive prison sentencing and mandatory minimums.

I’d say that’s a damn good place to start.

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One Response to “Avoiding Shortsightedness in Prison Reform”

  1. JK says:

    Immediately after Holder’s reform announcement I thought, Oh great, more parolees who won’t be able to find jobs or have access to healthcare.

    While that distant possibility (fingers crossed the economy will improve) doesn’t change my mind that altering sentencing guidelines for low-level drug offenders is the right thing to do, it seems the economic atmosphere at present bodes ill for a successful transition of the releasees into law-abiding, productive worker bees on the “outside.”

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