Friday, August 16, 2013

Morally Mandatory

You don’t have to be a fan of “The Wire” to appreciate that the War on Drugs has been an epic, unabashed failure. Politicians and other peddlers of tough-on-crime politics don’t care that the “war” disproportionately penalizes minorities and poor people. For them, it’s not about the actual effect of government drug policy—it’s about taking a hard-and-fast line. There’s no room for ambiguity or introspection.

Eric Holder isn’t a politician (at least in the democratically elected sense), but he’s a functionary of one. And it might be that his recent announcement—that federal prosecutors will circumvent sentencing laws mandating harsh punishment for small-time drug offenders—was spurred more by economics than morality. Nevertheless, as U.S. Attorney General, his announcement breathes fresh air into the national dialogue on crime and punishment.

Federal law imposes mandatory minimum sentences for certain criminal offenses. When it comes to drugs, these minimums are particularly severe. Sentences depend in large part on the quantity of illegal substances involved.

So, in order to alleviate the draconian effect of drug-sentencing laws, Holder has ordered that U.S. prosecutors not list quantities of narcotics when charging minor drug cases. Federal prosecutors are to omit the amount of drugs in indictments for offenses not involving:
  • the use of weapons
  • violence
  • ties to gangs or cartels
  •  sales to minors, or
  •  defendants with significant criminal records.
That way, a judge isn’t boxed into a sentence that may be—and likely is—unfair. (Drug quantity will still be a factor in determining a sentence when judges consider federal sentencing guidelines.)

Holder’s new drug policy also has other seemingly worthwhile components, such as increasing the use of drug-treatment programs in lieu of imprisonment.

But before anyone gets too sentimental, note that Holder is selling this policy as a moral mandate and as a method to reduce taxpayer spending vis-à-vis prison-industry spending. I don’t necessarily fault him for this approach: Dollars and cents are the most effective way to convince the public. (For example, the cost of the death penalty, rather than its inhumanity, seems to speak to people.)

No matter how Holder pitches the policy, it’s one step—hopefully of many to come—in the right direction.