Eric Holder: If Sentencing Reform Dies, “I’d Be Ashamed”


February 23, 2016

As a judge in Washington, D.C. in the ’80s and ’90s, Eric Holder says it didn’t take much to tell that the nation’s criminal justice system – especially when it came to low-level drug offenses – was “fundamentally unfair.”

“I had these mandatory minimum sentences that I had to impose on people who had drug problems who were selling, you know, relatively small amount of drugs in a nonviolent way to support a drug habit that they had, and who had to to go to jail for a five-year mandatory minimum, or a 10-year mandatory,” Holder remembers. “I didn’t feel comfortable doing it.”

By the time he became attorney general in 2009, Holder knew reform was long overdue. In a 2013 speech before the American Bar Association, he announced a new initiative called Smart on Crime. Under the policy, low-level, nonviolent drug offenders would be spared from stiff mandatory minimum sentences. “In the context of the 40-year federal War on Drugs,” the speech, said Rolling Stone magazine, “was nothing less than radical.”

But there’s more work to do, says Holder. In the below interview with FRONTLINE’s Martin Smith, he talks about the fight to change the nation’s approach to drugs and drug-related crime, his shared vision with President Obama, and why he says he’d be “ashamed of this nation” if Congress fails to pass new legislation around criminal justice reform.

This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 16, 2015.

So when you come into DOJ, talk a little bit about the drug war that you inherited.

I come into the Justice Department for my latest stint as attorney general, but I’d previously been in the Justice Department as deputy attorney general. But more importantly I think, I’d been a judge here in Washington, D.C., in the late ’80s, early ’90s, when the drug wars were really at their most intense.

I experienced firsthand what it was like to be a judge, to send people to jail for inappropriate amounts of time given what they had done. So I came to the Justice Department as attorney general deciding to look at where we stood, how were we using the legislative tools that we had or the changes in policies that we needed to make. I made a determination early on that we had to make some really fundamental shifts in the way in which we were approaching this whole struggle with drugs.

Was there a moment in your career where you had a turning point? Initially were you on board with the war on drugs approach?

I’d call it more a slow evolution. It really was my time as a judge, where I had these mandatory minimum sentences that I had to impose on people who had drug problems, who were selling relatively small amounts of drugs in a nonviolent way to support a drug habit that they had and who had to go to jail for a five-year mandatory minimum or a 10-year mandatory minimum, depending on the amount of drugs that they sold, and I didn’t feel comfortable doing it. When I became U.S. attorney here in Washington, I tried to make some changes there, and I tried to make more changes when I became attorney general.

“I made a determination early on that we had to make some really fundamental shifts in the way in which we were approaching this whole struggle with drugs.”

So you take office as attorney general. Talk about your ambition at that point for making changes in how we look at drugs and drug-related crime.

We start off [with] what I think was the most glaring problem, and that was the disparity between the sentences for crack and powder cocaine. The Fair Sentencing Act, which the president signed I guess in 2010, reduces that 100-1 ratio to about 16-1. I think it ought to be 1-1, but that’s as best you could do, given the legislative process that you had to go through.

From there, I looked at policies that had been left in place by prior administrations. [There was] one that required prosecutors to always charge the most significant crime that they could, get the maximum amount of time regardless of what the facts were. We reversed that policy early on. Then I ordered a more comprehensive review of what we were doing in the department in terms of the use of mandatory minimum sentences, the filing of enhancement papers, what [we were] doing with regard to clemency, what we were doing with regard to people who had been in jail for 20 and 30 years. All of that culminated in the speech I gave in August of 2013 to the ABA [American Bar Association] in San Francisco, where we announced what we have come to call the “Smart on Crime” initiative.

I want to slow you down a little bit and go through some of those moments, to begin with, however, your conversations with President Obama about drugs, drug policy, criminal justice. [Senior adviser] Valerie Jarrett said you had a shared vision. What was that shared vision?

The earliest conversation that we had was after he’d been elected, as a senator, but before he’d actually taken office. We were at a dinner sitting next to each other just by chance and starting to talk about a whole variety of things. Among the things we talked about was the criminal justice system and how there was the need for change, a need for new approaches.

Then over the months, I’d go to his office and talk to him about that. When he announced for the presidency, it was something, again, we always were talking about how were we going to deal with issues in the criminal justice system, make it more fair, make it more effective. And we did share a vision. …

Why had we gone on for so long with that kind of “arrest them, charge them maximally and lock them up” politics?

That’s how it started — you know, Nixon, the war on drugs, playing to this notion of the “silent majority,” and the [succeeding] administrations all with the thought that they had to show they were tough on crime, and one of the ways in which to do that is to come up with ways in which you increase mandatory minimum sentences, make them more widely applicable to different kinds of crime.

… But you also have to remember the times — in the early ’90s, we were facing an unprecedented crime wave. That was something that was very much on the minds of the American people. Crime has really receded in the minds of the American people now, but at that time, that was [a] top-three-, top-four issue. And the response to it was not necessarily one that was guided by people in law enforcement, but guided by people who were thinking about their own political fortunes.

I guess some people would say that the success in bringing down crime was due, in fact, to mandatory minimums and a “get tough on drugs” approach.

I think that there is something to be said for that. … On the other hand, if you look at what’s happened recently in places that have cut back on these pretty draconian drug policies, you’ve not seen a rise in crime. …

I want to go back to your conversations with the president. You must have discussed the risk that two African-American men at the top of our government were taking in promoting what many would have called a soft-on-crime approach to things. What kind of discussions would you have with him about that?

Well, at some point, you get these jobs, and you’re supposed to just do the right thing and damn the consequences, you know? We are progressives, you know, so anything that we —

You and the president?

Yeah. The president and I are progressives, and anything that we do is going to be seen through that lens. We’re going to be criticized for that, among other things. And we’re both African-American. But we couldn’t let that —

That’s two strikes against you.

Two strikes. We couldn’t let that paralyze us, you know? We couldn’t let those kinds of concerns paralyze us, especially when, from my perspective, the need for change was so obvious. And I had in him a boss who agreed with me. …

In May of 2010, you superseded the Ashcroft memo, which was the edict from [former] Attorney General [John] Ashcroft compelling federal prosecutors to maximize the kind of charges and sentences they sought.


That’s a bold move.

Some might call it bold. I would call it fair, just, appropriate. What I told our prosecutors is that your job is not to win cases; your job is not to maximize sentences; your job is to do justice. And I have great faith in the men and women of the Justice Department, for them to look at a particular case, look at a particular defendant and craft a charge that is appropriate to the crime that is involved. …

“At some point, you get these jobs, and you’re supposed to just do the right thing and damn the consequences, you know?”

It’s surprising to me that you would gather your U.S. attorneys together and say, “We’re going to do things a little differently here, or a lot differently.” You’re asking them to change their whole MO.

Well, yeah. I’m not saying that I didn’t get any resistance. I would say that I got more support than I expected. Certainly as you go down and talk to line assistant U.S. attorneys, the people who were actually trying the cases, there were a few people who were not supportive.

Questions were asked, concerns were raised about the impact this was going to have on the system. People just generally are resistant to change. These are prosecutors who have been following these essential rules for the last 20, 30 years, a couple generations of prosecutors, and I was saying, “Look, we’re going do this in a different way.” So I don’t want to leave you with the impression that this was done without some kind of internal opposition. …

In the summer of 2012, you’re vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard, and you sit down to start to write a memo. Describe what you did and why.

Yeah. Every year I’d write a memo to the president that would describe what I wanted to do in the coming year. I think every Cabinet member pretty much did the same thing. But that year, freed of some of the things that held me down and took a lot of my attention in the first term, I was looking now toward what we were going to do in a second term.

I knew that my time within the administration was drawing to a close, so now was the time to really do the kinds of things that I wanted to do with regard to the criminal justice system. And I put in the memo to the president that one of the focuses I wanted to have in that second term, and early on, was the reform of the criminal justice system and to deal with the issues that ultimately were a part of the “Smart on Crime” initiative — mandatory minimum sentences, clemency. … So that was a key part of the memo that I sent to him for my vision for the following year.

But politically, the country was moving to the right. The House was lost to the Republicans.


Why did you think that in 2012, late 2012, that was a good time?

Because — that was a surprising thing. As much as the country was, or at least the federal government were drifting to the right, you were hearing things from people on the right that was supportive of this notion of the need for criminal justice reform. Now, coming at it from perhaps from a different angle, in some ways, people on the right were talking about bankrupting the government, making sure that we didn’t spend as much money as we were on prisons — you know, $80 billion a year or so. … So although on the federal side, there was a drift to the right, a rise of the Tea Party caucus, even among them there was this notion that yeah, we need to do something about our criminal justice system. So the timing was right.

The right wanted to save money —


— and the left wanted more fair sentencing, a humane approach to criminal justice.

Yeah, although to be fair, I think both strains kind of ran on both sides. …

So you deliver the memo. You were in Martha’s Vineyard, right, working on an iPad when you wrote that first draft of that memo —

Right, yeah.

— when you were on vacation.


Can you just put me in that moment, how it happened?

I was at Martha’s Vineyard, picked up my iPad, kids are off at the beach, my wife is doing something with her girlfriends, and I remember sitting there and thinking, all right, now’s the time, and really kind of using my iPad without a keyboard, and kind of pecking on the letters and putting together the memo that ultimately went to the president. …

And then the president reads it, gets back to you, and says what?

That he liked the ideas; he liked where we were going, the ideas that were there. …

Do you remember exactly what he said when he called you back after this? I mean, because you’re going for it now. You’re really going to push criminal justice reform. You’ve sent this memo out. Do you remember the call or how you heard back and what he said?

No. As I remember, we were up in the residence. I don’t remember what the occasion was, but we were just having drinks, hors d’oeuvres, gathering of people there. And as usually happened, he and I would kind of drift off to the side of the gathering, and we’d do a little business, you know? And he’d say: “You know, I saw the memo. I think it’s a good idea. You’re really going to go for it?”

And I said, “No, I think now’s the time.” We’d been talking about this stuff for a while. We’d done some things, but now’s the time to really, really go for it. And I remember him saying: “Yeah, I think you’re right. So keep me posted. Let me know how this goes.”

I can remember that before I gave the speech in San Francisco, I showed him a draft of it. We were, again, at Martha’s Vineyard, and he looked at it, and he says, “Wow, you’re really going for it, huh?” And I said, “Yeah, but this is what we talked about.” He said, “No, I think it’s a good speech, and I think you ought to give it, but –”

He didn’t tell you to take anything out —


— or put anything in?

No. He saw the whole thing, … and he says, “You’ve got to be prepared for some negative blowback.”

He said that?


He wasn’t worried about that politically?

Nope. He said, “You ought to be prepared for this,” you know, “We’ve got to be prepared for this.” But he said, “It’s a good speech, and you ought to give it.”

What do you think it was in that initiative and in that speech that was most likely to draw criticism?

I think it was the totality of it. It was a paradigm shift, a shift in approach. We were saying that the way in which we’d been doing things for the last 20, 30 years, we’ve got to change it; we can’t continue to put people in jail at the rate that we are. You know, one-third of the Justice Department’s budget is being spent on the Bureau of Prisons.

There was a perception that the criminal justice system was unfair. And in fact, it was unfair in many ways. It was just time to say: “You know what? We’re not going to look at this politically. We’re going to look at this as stewards of the federal criminal justice system and do simply what is the right thing. It might not be politically correct, but it is certainly the appropriate thing to do; it’s the fair thing to do. And we’ll just see what happens.”

Drill down a little bit. You touched on the crack-versus-powder disparity in sentencing. But when you say not fair, tell me more what you mean by that.

Sure. I’m a judge here in Washington, D.C. Somebody sells $20 worth of crack to an undercover police officer. Under the laws that existed in Washington, D.C., at that time, that would get you a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. Now, the person who might have sold those drugs was selling the drugs because he or she had received some drugs from a larger drug dealer to support their own habit, and the sale of that $20 rock would put that person in jail for five years, when what that person really needed was drug treatment. … Now, a sentence of five years for selling a $20 rock to an undercover police officer, when you’re doing that to support a drug habit that you have, that just seemed to me to be not a good use of resources. But more than that, that just seemed to me fundamentally unfair.

Ultimately we worked into the law in Washington, D.C., something that was called the addict exception. If a judge made a determination that you were selling drugs to support a habit, you then did not have to impose a mandatory minimum sentence. That, it seemed to me, made a great deal of sense.

That speaks to the disparity issue of crack versus powder.  But there are other ways, are there not, in which we have an unbalanced, unfair system of justice, especially when it comes to race?

Yeah. I mean, if you look between 1983 and 1997, the number of African-Americans admitted to prison for drug offenses increased more than 26-fold — 26-fold relative to what? A sevenfold increase by whites.

By 2001, there were more than twice as many African-Americans as whites in state prisons for drug offenses. That whole racial component to this was disturbing as well, especially when you understand that whites and blacks were using drugs at roughly the same rates.

So why is that?

I think that decisions were made as to where we were going to deploy our law enforcement resources, and we put them into those communities that were largely populated by people of color. In some ways that made sense, because that was also where you saw the greatest amount of violence: black folks about 12 percent, 13 percent of the population, 50 percent of the nation’s homicide victims. So it made sense to put more law enforcement personnel in those neighborhoods.

But when one saw the impact of those law enforcement policies with regard to the enforcement of the drug laws, it was time to step back and say, “Given the disparities that we are producing here, shouldn’t we rethink the approaches that we are taking?” And no one was doing that. No one was doing it. And that was something that I was bound and determined to do as attorney general.

Rolling Stone magazine said in the context of the 40-year federal war on drugs, your speech was nothing less than radical.

Yeah, I’ll cop to that. It might have been radical, but it was needed. It was time to simply come up with something that made sense from a law enforcement perspective and not to look at it simply through a political lens.

… I think at the end of the day, it was right. The word should start with an R, but I wouldn’t go with “radical”; I’d say “right.”

And you were also pushing hard for a Smarter Sentencing Act to change the law — not just to instruct your U.S. attorneys to approach drug crimes differently. …


But this was an uphill battle.

Yeah. This is a battle that continues. We’re still in a process of trying to convince Congress to reformulate the drug laws that exist in our country and to look at the penalties that are mandated as a result of actions that previous Congresses had taken. …

So if it’s time, if those on the left think it’s time and the Right on Crime movement is saying, “We can’t afford what we’re doing here,” and there’s a meeting of the minds, why were you having so much trouble pushing that act through Congress?

Well, when people talk about dysfunction here in Washington, D.C., this is a primary example of it. Now, to be fair, they’re still in the process of discussing this, and there may be a resolution of this, … because the reality is that Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, they can do this without political cost.

… And if this doesn’t happen, this would be, I think, one of the worst moments in recent congressional history. I’d be ashamed of this nation if we didn’t pass some significant new legislation.


Ashamed. Given the human cost that’s paid under the schemes that are in place, given the number of people who are serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes, or who are serving 20- and 30-year sentences for nonviolent crimes, who have paid their debt to society and are still in jail, at some point it’s incumbent upon people who hold levers of power to simply do the right thing. And the right thing here is clear. It’s absolutely clear.

Yet the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys came out and wrote you a letter blasting the Smarter Sentencing Act.

Yeah. As I said, not everybody agrees that this is the right thing to do. …

How did the news come to you that your head of the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration], Michele Leonhart, was declining to support the act?

Michele and I had some very frank conversations, and this was not something that she was supportive of.

Were you surprised when you got the news that she was talking out of school, basically? She worked for you.

Yeah. Surprised, disappointed. But, you know, again, this is —

So what did you do?

Well, I told her that, you know, “You’re –”

You called her up?

Yeah, I brought her into my office and said: “Michele, you’re a part of this administration. You’ve been heard. We certainly listen to all the concerns that you have raised. And I’ve made the determination that we’re going to go in another direction.”

Now, I’ve got great respect for her, and she’s given a lot to this country, so the concerns that she raised were things that I took very seriously and weighed them as we made the determinations about what this new policy was going to look like. But ultimately, the decision was made, and we were going in a different direction. …

She said: “I can tell you that for me and the agents that work at the DEA, mandatory minimums have been very important to our investigations. We depend on them as a way to ensure the right sentences are applied.”

I understand that statement, and I respect where she comes from. But we have seen in the data that had been gathered since we’ve announced this policy that we’ve seen no shift in terms of the number of people who are pleading guilty; we’ve seen no shift in the amount of cooperation that we are receiving from people as a result of these new policies. …

“If this doesn’t happen, this would be … one of the worst moments in recent congressional history. I’d be ashamed of this nation if we didn’t pass some significant new legislation.”

During this period of time, you were touring a number of drug courts. Talk about that experience for you and what you were seeing.

One of the things I wanted to do was try to highlight alternatives to this emphasis on incarceration, … and I found federal judges and prosecutors who, once exposed to these alternatives, all became enthusiastic. People were given, in essence, a second chance to turn their lives around, and they were enthusiastic. But on a very personal level, what struck me, especially when I went to one in Philadelphia, was that I saw in that crowd of people who were defendants, participants in the program, people who looked a lot like me or people who I grew up with.

I remember leaving that day and coming back on the train and thinking about the guys I grew up with in Queens, some of whom had drug problems, some of whom went to jail and who, if they had had the ability to participate in a program like this, might have had much more productive lives.

That thought really kind of stayed with me, and it’s one of the reasons why I have said that in every federal district within the next five years, there ought to be a drug court. That ought to be a goal that we set for ourselves as a nation.

We talked about your shared vision with the president. But a fair amount has been written about how you were able to speak to issues of race where he couldn’t.

I read that all the time, and I hear that all the time, and I don’t agree with that. He gave an unbelievably moving and gutsy speech in Philadelphia during the first campaign. He has reacted to racial incidents — Trayvon Martin, other things — in a way that I think was gutsy, and did it in a way that really gave people an insight into who he was and what his views were when it came to racial matters.

As attorney general of the United States, I had particular responsibilities that were kind of flash points for racial issues: criminal justice, voting rights. So it was incumbent upon me, I thought, to speak truth. If you’re going to recommend a justice system reform package, well, at least one of the reasons why you want to do it is because of the racial disparities that we see in the criminal justice system. …

It’s not that he was reluctant. He has a whole variety of things he has to deal with as president of the United States. When it was appropriate, he spoke. There’s nothing that I said that was inconsistent with his worldview. I would think that people should not be concerned about or focus on his lack of expression when it comes to racial things, because A, I don’t think that’s true just looking at him, but beyond that, I’m his attorney general, and I’m not getting upbraided by him for the things that I’m saying, so you can assume that what I’m saying is reflective of his views on those topics.

A seminal event is in August 2014, when Michael Brown is shot by Officer [Darren] Wilson in Ferguson, [Mo.]. This exposed for all of us to see very clearly the amount of distrust between the African-American community and the justice system. You and the president were in Martha’s Vineyard at that time. What did you say to one another?

The shooting of Michael Brown occurs, the civil disturbances follow, day after day, night after night, in full view of the nation and the world on television, and he and I talked about that, about what should our response be.

We started batting around the idea of me going out there and trying to see if a visit by the attorney general would have a positive impact on bringing that community together, understanding that doing this was something that would be risky. Didn’t know how I would be received when I got there. If the trip was not successful, would we have been shown to have been weak? And we talked about that.

Batted it back and forth over the course of some days until we made the determination that it was worth the risk to go out there and to meet with people in the community to try to see if there are ways — and talk to Michael Brown’s parents, to see if there are ways in which we could reassure that community that the federal government was going to look at this, the Justice Department was going to look at the set of facts there and have an independent and thorough investigation, and then just go and listen to people. So I went to a school, talked to some young people, went to a café/diner, spoke to people there — just listened to people in the community, just to have people feel that their government cared at the highest levels. …

And this is the result, though, is it not, of everything you’ve been saying  for years since you were a judge in D.C., that we have an unfair system. You were making attempts to reform it, and then this happens. Michael Brown is shot, the community reacts, and then we have just one after another after another of these similar kinds of incidents. This is a result, in your view, of our unfair system of justice, and in part of the unfair war on drugs that engendered so much mistrust in the African-American community. Is that wrong?

No, I think that’s exactly right. The war on drugs has put a barrier between communities of color and people in law enforcement, a barrier that need not be there. When I was a judge here in Washington, D.C., I remember trying cases. I always talked to the juries after a trial, and I can remember more than a few cases where we have a hung jury, when the government had proven its case, a drug case, not beyond a reasonable doubt, but beyond all doubt and have a hung jury.

So I talked to the jurors, and I talked to the one or two jurors who voted not guilty, or did not vote to convict. I said: “What was the deal? Why did you do that?” And they said: “No, because we know what’s going to happen here. This kid’s going to go away for five years. I’m not sending another black man to jail” — and this is in spite of the oath that they had taken to judge the evidence only on what they saw in a courtroom.

That left a lasting impression with me about this split that existed between the African-American community here in Washington, D.C., and law enforcement.

These are African-American jurors?

Right. Looking at an African-American defendant. But interestingly, the police officers who were testifying were predominantly African-American. You had an African-American judge, me, African-American prosecutors, perhaps.

But the people who served on those juries had lost faith in the system. And that was something that stuck with me and something that I thought I needed to address if I ever had the opportunity to do something else in the criminal justice system.

And you lay a lot of the blame for that on the war on drugs.

The way in which our drug policy evolved I think played a huge role in that.

In eroding trust?

In eroding trust, yeah, because people saw what happened. They saw an addicted person involved in a nonviolent way, selling drugs — not something they supported, and that they understood had a negative impact on their community, but there was also this notion of this sense of fairness that didn’t exist, and they wanted to see that.

People wanted drugs out of their communities. They wanted drug dealers out of their communities. They wanted the violence connected to drug dealing out of their communities. But they wanted people to be treated fairly. They wanted police officers to treat them with respect. And police officers, you talk to them when I was a judge here, they weren’t necessarily feeling what they were doing was great either. …

Is the drug war over?

The drug war I think is over. Certainly calling it the drug war should be over. But the battle against the narcotics problem in this country has to go on. But we need to take some different approaches, and it should not all be seen as just a criminal justice problem. It ought to be seen as a public health issue. …

It’s heartening for me to see, for instance, how this nation has reacted to the heroin problem that we’re now seeing around the country, where we are coming up with public health responses to it as opposed to simply taking people who are addicted to heroin, throwing them in jail and not dealing with the underlying problems that caused that addiction in the first place.

Not to be too glib, but isn’t that because a lot of white kids are doing heroin and white people are doing heroin?

I think that’s certainly a factor.

Richard Pryor said famously about cocaine that it’s an epidemic now because white people are doing it.

Well, you know, when things seep into the majority community, the nation pays a greater amount of attention than when it is confined to minority communities. So yeah, there’s an element of truth to that.

But at the end of the day, one of the things that I tried to do as attorney general is to make people understand that we’re talking about, regardless of their skin color, regardless of where they live, we’re talking about our fellow citizens who are being negatively impacted by drugs and by the drug policies that we have put in place. It’s just time for a new approach.

“The drug war I think is over … But the battle against the narcotics problem in this country has to go on. But we need to take some different approaches, and it should not all be seen as just a criminal justice problem. It ought to be seen as a public health issue.”

So what is that new approach? What do we need to be doing?

We need to think about dealing with people who have addictions in ways that we have not. We can’t put them in jail and think that that’s going to cure their addictions. We have to come up with public health responses in that regard. We have to come up with ways in which those people who engage in the narcotics trade are dealt with in a more fair way. …

If we need to treat this as a public health problem, why then wouldn’t we be talking more seriously about decriminalization?

I think that certainly that ought to be a part of the conversation. You know, where do we want to be as a nation? Now, there’s certain drugs I just can’t see. It’s hard for me to imagine ever decriminalizing crack cocaine, drugs like that. But the whole question of should marijuana be decriminalized, I mean, that’s a conversation I think that we should engage in.

Do you think it should be decriminalized?

I certainly think it ought to be rescheduled. You know, we treat marijuana in the same way that we treat heroin now, and that clearly is not appropriate. So at a minimum, I think Congress needs to do that. Then I think we need to look at what happens in Colorado and what happens in Washington.

 Why not decriminalize all these drugs? Alcoholics wreck a lot of lives, but they’re only prosecuted if they’re doing something like driving a car when they’re drunk. Why not treat all addicts similarly?

Well, again, it depends on the drug, and that conversation I think ought to be had with regard to marijuana.

But not those other drugs? Not the hard drugs — meth, cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin?

It’s hard for me to imagine a situation in which those drugs ought to be legalized.

Or decriminalized. European countries have been doing that for sometime, some European countries. You don’t see that happening here?

I don’t see that happening here, and it’s not something that I think would be appropriate.

Why not?

If you look at the impact, the effect that the addictive qualities of those drugs [have], that’s problematic.

Alcohol is tremendously problematic, but it’s legal.

Well, I mean, there is a history of alcohol use that goes back thousands and thousands of years. We even use it in religious ceremonies. So I think you have — certainly we need to focus on alcohol. It’s a problem; it’s a drug. But I think alcohol is fundamentally different than meth, fundamentally different than crack cocaine, fundamentally different than heroin. …

Is Smart on Crime — in your view, has it been a success?

Yeah, I think the early indications are that it is.

But you haven’t passed legislation; you haven’t gotten a Smarter Sentencing Act. That’s got to be somewhat disappointing.

Oh, yeah, but I’ve taken executive action that I think has proven to be very productive. We have seen for the first time in 40 [years] a drop in the incarceration rate in the federal system. Meanwhile, we have seen a drop in crime, and a slight uptick maybe this year.

That’s the first time that’s happened in 40 years. We’ve not seen any drops in the conviction rate; we have not seen any drops in the cooperation rate. And yet we have fewer numbers of people who are being tried on drug crimes, fewer applications made to have mandatory minimum sentences imposed. So I think the vision that I had is proving to be correct, that we can do things in a much more sane, just way, and not have a negative impact on our overall law enforcement effort. And we can save money at the same time. …

Jason M. Breslow

Jason M. Breslow, Former Digital Editor



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Federal Reserve Raises Rates as it Juggles Fighting Inflation With a Banking Crisis
The U.S. central bank announced Wednesday it would raise interest rates by a quarter-percent. FRONTLINE’s documentary “Age of Easy Money” offers context on this moment.
March 22, 2023
Where Harvey Weinstein’s Cases, Trials & Convictions Stand Now
The former movie mogul has been tried, convicted and sentenced to nearly four decades in prison on multiple charges in two jurisdictions and faces additional civil lawsuits.
March 21, 2023
Citing War Crimes in Ukraine, International Criminal Court Issues Arrest Warrant for Putin
The court alleges there are “reasonable grounds” to believe the Russian president bears “individual criminal responsibility” for the deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia.
March 17, 2023