Eric Holder, who announced a helpful policy on Monday. Photo via
After over 1,600 days in office, one rhetorical but unreal end to the war on drugs, and scores of state-law-violating, promise-breaking medical-marijuana raids, the Obama administration did something useful yesterday. In a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco, Attorney General Eric Holder said he would direct the Justice Department to no longer seek mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent, low-level drug offenders. There’s a lot more that needs to happen to address the systemic inequalities perpetuated by the drug war—and a ton of work needs to be done at the state and local levels—but this is a hell of a step in the right direction.
Mandatory minimums are laws that require judges to hand out brutally long sentences to defendants convicted of a variety of crimes. They originated in the 50s as part of aggressive anti-marijuana legislation, and while those laws were repealed in the 70s, the idea of mandatory minimums came back with a hysterical vengeance during the Reagan years. Juries are generally not informed of mandatory minimums when they are deciding court cases, and judges have no way to lessen sentences either; it’s a method of punishment both draconian and robotic. The most bizarre, tragic stories about mandatory minimums feature judges who want to send a drug offender away for some lesser sentence, but are unable to do so.
Holder’s plan isn’t perfect. For one thing it’s not being retroactive, so hundreds of thousands of people in prison for small-time drug busts will be there for years. (Though Holder also mentioned looking into a “compassionate release” program for dying or elderly prisoners.) For another, it’s based on the discretion of the Justice Department—the next attorney general could reverse this policy, and Holder himself could always change his mind and renew the government’s commitment to putting low-level crack dealers in cages. But in the same speech he said he supported a piece of bipartisan legislation that would cement similar changes into law: senator Rand Paul’s Justice Safety Valve Act, which would allow judges to ignore mandatory minimums in federal cases. That’s how bad these laws are, and how bad drug policy is in this country: giving judges, who aren’t usually noted for their leniency, the ability to knock some years off a clearly unjust sentence counts as a massive improvement.
Along with a judge ruling against New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy (more on that below), talk of reforming some asset forfeiture laws (you should read Sarah Stillman’s excellent New Yorker piece on the topic), and the attention journalist Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop has received, it’s enough to make you feel optimistic that the prison-industrial complex has finally peaked and will soon enter a decline. Which isn’t to say that there’s not a lot of horrible, undeserved suffering going on in prisons—sometimes directly thanks to Holder—or no more sweeping reforms that need to happen. But after 40 years of lunacy, it’s a strange and wonderful thing when there’s any good news about the drug war.
On to the rest of this week’s blotter:
- On August 12, a federal judge ruled that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy violated the constitutional rights of scores of thousands of New Yorkers (duh, said a chorus of activists) and ordered a federal monitor to oversee an overhaul to the system. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policies are having a bad time lately. Earlier in the week, it was reported that as part of a 2010 lawsuit over the long-controversial, racially-slanted policy, the NYPD would finally delete hundreds of thousands of names and addresses its officers had collected during these stops.
- The DEA has used tips provided by the NSA and other intelligence agencies to go after drug traffickers, then “recreated” an investigative trail to make it look like they came by the information through normal channels, according to a report by Reuters that came out last week. The government has been obsessing over drugs a lot longer than it’s been obsessed with terrorism, so this news shouldn’t be a complete surprise. But it's deeply disturbing that the origins of drug investigations resulting from top-secret spying have been kept secret from even judges, defense lawyers, and prosecutors who were involved in the cases. Senior DEA officials told Reuters this type of lying was a “bedrock concept” of how things worked.
- Lieutenant Jonathan Josey, a Philadelphia cop who was caught on video punching a woman at the city's 2012 Puerto Rican Day Parade, is back on the force as of this week, despite the fact that he was charged with assault and fired by the police commissioner. An arbitrator reviewed the video frame by frame and decided that Jonathan was merely swatting a beer out of the woman’s hand when she slipped and fell. Now, not only is he back on active duty, he’ll be awarded back pay for the eleven months he spent without his badge and gun.
- On August 9, the Seattle Police Department—known for a pattern of excessive force, according to the Department of Justice, a.k.a. they sometimes shoot people for no reason—settled a civil suit filed by the family of Brian Scott Torgerson, a mentally disabled man who was abused by cops in May 2010, for $1.75 million. The suit claimed that during the course of his arrest Brian was beaten, deprived of oxygen, and wrapped in a mesh “spit hood” after he had vomited and was bleeding heavily. Even more tragically the brutality resulted after Brian’s parents called the cops to his apartment, hoping he’d get the help he needed.
- The TSA, which is mostly known for hassling travelers at airports, has been branching out in the past few years. Its agents have been spotted at such exotic locations as a Paul Ryan campaign rally and various sporting events. They’re now a fairly routine sight at Amtrak stations as well, as the the New York Timesnoted last week. TSA officers apparently need to walk around and make themselves visible in order to frighten wrongdoers and make the innocent feel safe, even though there are a whole bunch of other law-enforcement agencies, like Amtrak police and local cops, that could presumably do the job as well.
- A few weeks ago, the Concord, New Hampshire, police chief got into a bit of hot water when it was revealed that not only did he want $250,000 from the Department of Homeland Security to buy a tanklike armored vehicle, he claimed he needed one because, “Groups such as the Sovereign Citizens, Free Staters, and Occupy New Hampshire are active and present daily challenges.” After the predictable, and understandable, outrage this provoked, he backpedaled like a pro.
- The father of Ibragim Todashev, the Chechen immigrant who was a friend of deceased Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and who was fatally shot by FBI agents while they were interrogating him about the bombing, plans to file a lawsuit against the FBI. The Feds have been evasive about why the younger Todashev was killed, and conflicting media accounts suggest he charged at agents while holding an object, or possibly while unarmed. In any case, a man’s son is dead and he’s trying to figure out why.
- On Thursday, a Salt Lake City, Utah, district attorney named Sim Gill took the rare step of ruling that a police shooting of a 21-year-old woman was “unjustified.” After months of investigation, Sim decided that sheriff’s deputies were not legally justified when they fired six shots at Danielle Willard, who was unarmed, in a November 2012 incident. He’ll conduct a second investigation to ascertain whether the deputies should be prosecuted. (That shooting led to the disbanding of the drug squad responsible, and an internal investigation found numerous examples of officer misconduct.)
- The winner of our Good Cop of the Week award is Sarasota, Florida, officer Derek Conley, who, along with some forthright civilians, caught and then released some very confused sea turtle hatchlings who had begun to crawl up a beach in the direction of a hotel resort instead of toward the water where they belonged.
Lucy Steigerwald is a freelance writer and photographer. Read her blog here and follow her on Twitter: @lucystag
Previously: End the War on Baby Deer