Holder Creates an Opening for Real Public Safety Leaders: Communities

It seems to me a day to celebrate, a day to be watchful, and a day to continue to build a movement for justice reinvestment.

In a speech given yesterday in San Francisco, US Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced the Obama Administration’s latest efforts to address failures in the federal criminal justice system. 

A Way Around Mandatory Minimums

Among the highlights: The Administration has ordered prosecutors to omit the amount of drugs when prosecuting in low-level drug offenses.  If individuals are found guilty, this will allow them to avoid harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws exemplify some of the greatest downfalls of the criminal justice system. 

Our prisons are overflowing with low-level inmates who must serve a minimum sentence for a minor drug offense, when in reality they would be better served with treatment, rehabilitation, or both.  Sending such an individual away to serve time behind bars only perpetuates the cycle of violence and fails to make our communities stronger and safer. 

When people are locked away in prisons, they tend to come in contact with more harm and violence—harm and violence that they bring back to their communities once they are released without comprehensive rehabilitative care and treatment.  

Attorney General Holder’s statement reflects a long overdue recognition that the country’s criminal justice system is broken and that it is bankrupting our nation economically and morally—something that low-income communities of color have long understood and felt. 

How Will Bold Words Be Implemented?

This bold move by the Obama Administration is a glimmer of hope for those fighting to address our criminal justice system.  I am heartened by the call for the expansion of compassionate release and drug treatment programs instead of incarceration.  Such initiatives create openings for us to expose other abuses and failures in the criminal justice system.

At the same time, I caution us to remain watchful for how these policies are implemented.  

For example, reducing sentences for drug offenders only if it can be proven that they do not have any ties to criminal gangs is subject to judicial and prosecutorial bias against communities of color. These kinds of provisions have negatively and disproportionately impacted communities of color in the past and eliminating this caveat would be preferable.

Further, compassionate release should be considered for all elderly inmates, not just those who have committed nonviolent crimes. Data show that elderly inmates, even those who have committed violent crimes, are no longer likely to recidivate.  

Ultimately, to successfully address the unfairness the attorney general identified in the criminal justice system, we need to continue to build a movement of concerned people across the country. We need to not just eliminate "corrections waste" but also repurpose those funds toward economic and educational opportunities for all communities—and that’s going to take people power.

Communities Can Drive a New Public Safety Conversation

As the attorney general stated, incarceration "imposes a significant economic burden — totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone — and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”

If we want to create a more prosperous future, we need to assess those costs and support the communities hardest hit by decades of failed “tough-on-crime” policies, while also looking to them as resources for new approaches to public safety. 

The attorney general and Obama Administration have given us a nice start to push for strong and lasting criminal justice reforms that lift up our communities, rather than locking them away. 

But it is only through collective action and a unified movement that we can achieve the changes that truly build healthy, safe, and strong communities.

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