Holder sentencing move shows new willingness to engage on race

Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement of significant changes in the Justice Department’s pursuit of mandatory minimum sentences highlights a new willingness on the part of the Obama administration to engage on issue of race.

It’s the second public policy area touching on race where Holder — the nation’s first African-American attorney general — has flexed his muscles in recent weeks.

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Just last month, he said Justice would challenge voter ID laws adopted in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's decision to gut a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.

Holder’s actions come in conjunction with President Obama's recent impromptu discussion on the Trayvon Martin verdict and a scheduled appearance by the president at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington later this month.

Civil rights leaders and minority lawmakers applauded Holder’s latest move, in which Justice won’t pursue mandatory minimum sentences on many nonviolent drug crimes.

They called it part of an encouraging push by the Obama administration to address issues of racial inequality.

“It has been well documented that a disproportionate share of stiff mandatory sentences for low-level, non-violent crimes typically falls on low income populations and communities of color,” Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), head of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), said in a statement. “The measures introduced by the Attorney General provide a fair and balanced approach to sentencing.”

Jennifer Ng’andu, the director of the National Council of La Raza’s Health and Civil Rights Policy Project, called the steps “long overdue.”

She stressed that sentencing laws also disproportionately affect Hispanics, who are more than twice as likely as whites to be admitted for a drug offense.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), a prominent member of the Congressional Black Caucus and a former judge, said both Obama and Holder have long been interested in reforming the sentencing guidelines.

He argued a glut of issues in the administration's first term, particularly the efforts to battle the recession, enact healthcare reform and wind down two wars in the Middle East, consumed most of the time and political oxygen.

Now that Obama has a bit of space and the freedom from reelection concerns, Butterfield said he wants “to move on some of his other priorities.”

“You can't change 200 years of history by executive order,” he said, “but you can take some little steps, and that's what he's doing.”

GOP leaders are approaching Holder's announcement with a much more skeptical eye.

House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), for instance, warned Monday that, while he agrees with many of the changes Holder outlined, the DOJ “cannot unilaterally ignore the laws or the limits on his executive powers.”

“While the Attorney General has the ability to use prosecutorial discretion in individual cases, that authority does not extend to entire categories of people,” Goodlatte said in a statement. “We will be closely monitoring his efforts to ensure that the Obama Administration does not attempt to exceed its constitutional powers once again.”

Holder himself hinted that more moves from the administration could be coming, telling the American Bar Association’s annual meeting that Obama believed “that our work is far from finished.”

“Over the next several months, the president will continue to reach out to members of Congress from both parties, as well as governors, mayors, and other leaders, to build on the great work being done across the country to reduce violent crime and reform our criminal justice system,” Holder told those gathered in San Francisco for the event.

Democratic strategists suggested Monday that the Obama administration was adopting the more confrontational tone on civil rights and racial issues.

“After four years of being in office, there’s certainly a greater comfort — more familiarity with what he can yield administratively and rhetorically,” said strategist Jamal Simmons. “As a new president he spent time filling out the contours of his office, but now he’s very clear about how much time he has left.”

Simmons and other Democrats said that the more muscular approach is likely also dictated by outside events, including the Supreme Court’s move earlier this year to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act that required certain jurisdictions with a history of voter suppression to clear any changes in their voting laws with the Justice Department. Following the move, states like Texas and North Carolina have moved aggressively to implement strict new voter ID standards that opponents say increase the barrier to voting.

“Given the degree of what we’ve seem with voter ID — what is realistically voter suppression — a lot of this is summoning to address what potentially is denying the constitutional right to vote,” said former DNC official David Mercer.

The issue of race and criminal justice became particularly focused following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a Florida neighborhood watch volunteer, in the February 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager.

The verdict sparked protests across the country, inspired a national discussion about sentencing discrepancies and led some prominent African-Americans to call for a boycott of the state.

Late last month, CBC leaders hosted a hearing to examine what Congress can do, if anything, to level the playing field when it comes to issues of criminal justice.

Democrats are pointing to a 2010 law, the Fair Sentencing Act, that narrowed the gap between crack and powder cocaine when it comes to mandatory minimum sentencing.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) noted that, while the tougher sentencing laws “applied to everybody,” their “effects were so clearly on blacks, on Hispanics, people of color,” that Congress had to act.

“If we keep talking about race and do not do something about it, even black people are not going to want to hear it,” Norton said, referring to Martin.