If you missed Rachel’s segment last night on Attorney General Eric Holder’s dramatic announcement on sentencing in drug crimes, it’s well worth your time. Indeed, by any fair measure, yesterday may be one of the most important days of the Obama administration’s second term, at least insofar as criminal justice is concerned.
Holder declared what many have long argued: too many Americans convicted of non-violent drug crimes are stuck in too many prisons for far too long. It’s a policy that costs too much, ravages families and communities, and has no practical law-enforcement rationale. That the Attorney General is using his prosecutorial discretion to circumvent mandatory minimums is an incredibly important step in the right direction – it’s the kind of move that will put fewer Americans behind bars for low-level, non-violent drug crimes.
What I was also eager to see were the next-day reactions, most notably from the right. Would Holder face a backlash from Republicans? So far, no. The conservative Washington Times ran this report today:
Grover Norquist, a conservative libertarian Republican and founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform … [claimed] that the Holder directive simply cribs from legislation by Democratic Sens. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, along with Republicans Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky, that would give federal judges greater discretion in sentencing certain drug offenders.
In the House, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican, and Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, Virginia Democrat and ranking member on the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism, homeland security, and investigations, also have introduced legislation to reduce recidivism and federal prison costs through post-sentencing risk assessments and other evidence-based programs developed by states.
Mike Huckabee responded to the AG’s announcement by saying he “finally found something I can agree with Eric Holder on.”
As best as I can tell, not one member of the congressional Republican leadership in either chamber criticized Holder’s decision in any way.
And that matters enormously.
As we discussed earlier in the summer, in the not-too-distant past, the conservative line on these issues lacked all reason and nuance. The right wanted more prisons, more prisoners, harsher sentences, an aggressive “war on drugs,” and no questions. To disagree was to invite the “soft on crime” condemnation. As the nation’s prison population soared to unprecedented levels, the right simply responded, “Good.”
The landscape has, however, changed rather quickly. Twenty years ago, if an Attorney General from a Democratic administration had made this announcement, conservatives would have condemned “letting drug addicts onto our streets.” Yesterday, such reactionary, knee-jerk reactions were muted, and among prominent Republicans, non-existent.
On the surface, this gives the Obama administration some breathing room – Holder and other officials will realize they can adopt common-sense measures without facing political fury and instigating a national uproar. But below the surface, the response suggests more systemic reforms may yet be possible – the A.G.’s move represents progress, but Congress will have to act to make more sweeping changes.
And for the first time in recent memory, that now that seems realistic. As Greg Sargent explained yesterday, as the political winds shift on this issue, the “soft on crime” attacks “no longer have anywhere near the cultural potency or political relevance they once did. As a result, “this may now be an area where compromise is possible.”