Eric Holder’s sentencing reforms represent a sea change

OPINION - Holder’s announcement this week signals both his leadership and commitment to these issues as well as his capacity to hear and respond to calls for equal justice...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

This week, Attorney General Holder announced that Federal Prosecutors would have more discretion (i.e. more leeway) in maneuvering around some of this nation’s more draconian sentencing practices impacting substance abusers and others whose lives and families have been decimated by the so-called War on Drugs.

The federal prison population, some 200,000 inmates, accounts for nearly 15 percent of the total number of inmates (1.5 million plus) in this nation.

Nearly half of the federal inmate population is serving time for drug offenses.  The significance of this policy shift initiated by AG Holder and the DOJ should not be underestimated.

For some time now, scholars and activists have argued and organized against our overly aggressive, consistently biased criminal justice system.

Holder’s announcement this week signals both his leadership and commitment to these issues as well as his capacity to hear and respond to calls for equal justice from the litany of voices aimed at ending the war on drugs and reforming our broken criminal justice system.

The Department of Justice memo sent to all U.S. federal prosecutors this week requires them to not include information regarding drug quantities – thereby allowing them to sidestep mandatory minimums – for drug defendants that meet a reasonable set of criteria, including having no affiliations with drug cartels or other criminal organizations, no prior criminal record, and no violent crimes connected to their offenses.

According to Holder, “a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities.  However many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem rather than alleviate it.”

One of the communities weakened most by our overly aggressive, non-rehabilitative, consistently biased “justice” system is the black community.

The AG addressed this directly, noting that black convicts, on average, serve 20% longer sentences than their white counterparts.

For the US Attorney General to lead this charge is an important moment in the collective efforts to address the problems with our criminal justice system.

This also comes at a moment where the black community is wrestling with the most recent and most egregious examples of how the entire criminal justice system too often works against us.

The Zimmerman trial verdict, the release of a powerful film detailing the last 24 hours of Oscar Grant’s life (Fruitvale Station), and the recent victory against the inherently biased policy of stop and frisk, make this week’s announcement a welcome advancement in the ongoing struggle to secure equal justice under the law.

This is an important moment for movement politics targeting the US criminal justice system.

The research efforts of scholars like Michelle Alexander – who’s regularly referenced book, The New Jim Crow, exposes the racial bias of the Prison Industrial Complex; and Imani Perry who’s equally indispensable – More Beautiful, More Terrible chronicles the persistence of racial inequality in the 21st century – serve as the informational bedrock for important activist initiatives like the Dream Defenders and The Sentencing Project.

The commemoration (and continuation) of the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice will be yet another platform for organizers to redress our criminal criminal justice system, but for all of this important progressive energy, many challenges still remain.

We need for prosecutors at the state and municipal levels to take this important cue from the federal government. Since the majority of drug offenders are not prosecuted at the federal level, we still need this kind of reform to be mandated throughout the system.

The overly aggressive culture of prosecution when it comes to the War on Drugs must be challenged and eradicated.  And while the AG spoke generally about exploring prison alternatives and diversion programs, we can no longer afford to not rehabilitate substance abusers or continue to place them amongst violent hardened criminals.

We must also end Stop and Frisk policies now.

They serve as the initial point of contact between the criminal justice system and legions of black and brown men who come to understand racial profiling as an unfortunate caveat of their citizenship.

Continuing to assertively address these issues amongst others (poverty, public education, etc.) will work to reverse the destruction that the War on Drugs has wrought upon the African American community.

Attorney General Holder has distinguished himself this week as an important ally amongst the organizations and activists who toil on against the injustice of America’s criminal justice system.

James Braxton Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University and an MSNBC contributor. Follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson