More than forty years after the U. S. government launched the modern drug war, its highest-ranking prosecutor has tacitly admitted that it is a legal and moral failure:
In a major shift in criminal justice policy, the Obama administration moved on Monday to ease overcrowding in federal prisons by ordering prosecutors to omit listing quantities of illegal substances in indictments for low-level drug cases, sidestepping federal laws that impose strict mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., in a speech at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco on Monday, announced the new policy as one of several steps intended to curb soaring taxpayer spending on prisons and help correct what he regards as unfairness in the justice system, according to his prepared remarks.
Saying that “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason,” Mr. Holder justified his policy push in both moral and economic terms.
At the risk of giving Holder too much credit, it is encouraging that he is not viewing his end-run around mandatory minimums for drug offenses in purely utilitarian terms: he recognizes the injustice of current laws which have contributed to the world’s highest incarceration rate. But it’s worth noting that these reforms follow the lead of several conservative Southern states, which have turned to treatment, diversionary programs, and early release for non-violent offenders as a way to relieve prison overcrowding. Texas, far and away the nation’s leader in executions, has experienced a steady drop in its prison population after adopting sentencing reforms aimed at rehabilitation instead of imprisonment, and is actually closing prisons it no longer needs.
Whether Holder’s proposed reforms will have a similar effect on federal prison populations remains to be seen. One caveat is that this does not represent any long-term reform of the actual mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. Holder is simply using his prosecutorial discretion to not issue indictments that could lead to lengthy prison terms. The laws are still on the books and only Congress can change or repeal them. Should Obama or his successor appoint a more enthusiastic drug warrior, even this modest progress could be reversed. It’s also unclear who will qualify as a “low-level” drug offender. Your friendly neighborhood pot dealer may get lucky with this policy change, but it’s unlikely that purveyors of harder stuff will be unrelated “to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels” in the feds’ view.
But it’s a start. If President Obama wants to leverage the political capital he’ll gain from these reforms, he could take even more dramatic action to reduce prison populations by using his clemency powers to reduce the sentences of minor drug offenders. But as he has demonstrated throughout his time in office, Obama’s mercy for incarcerated Americans is quite limited.
The Attorney General’s exact words:
What we need to do is change the way in which people think about guns, especially young people, and make it something that’s not cool, that it’s not acceptable, it’s not hip to carry a gun anymore, in the way in which we’ve changed our attitudes about cigarettes. You know, when I was growing up, people smoked all the time. Both my parents did. But over time, we changed the way that people thought about smoking, so now we have people who cower outside of buildings and kind of smoke in private and don’t want to admit it.
You’ve been a bad, bad… citizen.
Cower — interesting choice of words that. Cower is a word more associated with fear than shame in my mind. One cowers in fear. One blushes or hides out of shame.1
It’s a natural inclination in those with a love of power to want to see those beneath them cower. Our proper posture when faced with the disapproval of our betters is on bended knee, shoulders trembling, head bowed in anxious deference.
It’s also interesting that Holder suggests smokers “cower” outside of buildings, doing their nasty deed in private, on their own initiative. Silly me, I thought it was because government regulations and corporate policies require them to smoke only in designated areas outside. I doubt most such smokers feel any shame in the act, though they may huddle in winter.
Recently, my college friends and myself were discussing a recent article in Vibe magazine on the experiences of a flamboyantly gay man at Morehouse College, and the response of the school’s president. I shared the two articles with family and friends, and the inevitable question “what has happened to black men?” came up. It seems clear to me that the main things which have happened are the reasons I despise Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan. The war on poverty brought us welfare, which pushed a lot of black men from homes in the name of easy (or easier) money. That was Johnson. Reagan escalated the war on drugs, which further devastated the black family, especially the black males. Can anyone really claim that it is better for a black guy to be locked up for smoking or selling weed, rather than going to a community college and getting himself a job some day? Is controlling what someone does with his own body so very important? Is promoting the creation of drug gangs, then promoting the increase in the intrusiveness and violence of policing something we can really describe as “good?”
Because of these two factors, black men have fewer male role models. Many men emulate their mothers, unsurprising, as so many men are reared without fathers. Some of those mothers are educated, so that is fine as far as education goes. These men will pursue education. But they do not act like men. This is true even of many heterosexual men. Among any sufficiently large population, a number of gay people is to be expected. I do not find it surprising that a segment of the gay population would take emulating their mothers to an extreme that the straight men would not.
I predicted years ago that black higher education would become increasingly gay, and specifically, effeminately so. The war on drugs has devastated the ranks of black men in black communities to such an extent that female role models are, all too often, the best role models for success that black boys have. The testosterone has been depleted from the segments of black society most in need of it. This is one of the many tragedies brought to neighborhoods across the nation by the desire to force moral choices on others “for their own good.” And, while I targeted those two presidents for specific criticism, we can hardly “blame whitey” for this one. There are lots of people who are black drug warriors. Pretty much every black politician, including Obama, is a drug warrior. Eric Holder, his pick for Attorney General, is an especially fervent drug warrior. As far as I am concerned, we should treat blacks who support the war on drugs the same as we would treat a black guy doing a minstrel show in full blackface at an NAACP meeting. They deserve nothing but derision for being essentially black slave overseers. They profit from promoting oppression.