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Posts Tagged ‘Eric Holder’

What the New DOJ Drug Policy Means for Everyone

Monday, May 15th, 2017

Jeff Sessions -Photo/Alex Brandon

Jeff Sessions -Photo/Alex Brandon

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he has rescinded the prior Department of Justice policies of Attorney General Eric Holder on sentencing and charging in drug cases. Under Attorney Generals Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, both reversed prior drug policies which saw many minorities and others going to prison for decades for low level, non-violent drug involvement due to mandatory minimum sentences. Under Attorney General Holder, the Department of Justice concentrated more efforts and resources on drug defendants who were violent and/or had substantial involvement with drug trafficking. Sessions, known as the law and order Attorney General, has saw fit to turn back the progress seen in the Eric Holder era.

Sessions announced last week that he intends for all U. S. attorneys to charge the most serious crimes and seek the highest penalties for all drug defendants in federal courts. Mandatory minimums and lengthy sentences began in the 1980’s to combat the crack cocaine epidemic. After 30 years since the original law and order mandatory minimums of the Regan era sought to increase drug sentences, there is still an epidemic of drugs—known currently as the opioid epidemic. In the prior mandatory minimum era, there were persons with very low drug involvement who spent decades in jail for having very small amounts of drugs in their possession and with no prior criminal convictions, due to mandatory maximum minimums.

Sessions declared the need for a change in policy due to an increase in crime; in fact, crime has been decreasing and is at its lowest in many years. And while many national prosecutors praise Sessions and the new policy, others who seek criminal justice reform abhor the new policy, as it will simply fill up jails. And maybe that’s exactly what Sessions wants to do. Private prisons are a high priority for those who earn big bucks for building and maintaining private prisons.

What is needed today to curtail drug use and abuse is the same thing that was needed during the 1980’s. Drug treatment and prevention is a key to decreasing the drug problem in the U.S. Opponents to the increased drug sentences and in favor of overall criminal justice reform include progressives and conservatives alike. The Charles Koch Institute found that the majority of Trump voters even contend that criminal justice reform is important with its findings:

“A poll last month by the conservative Charles Koch Institute found that 81 percent of Trump voters think criminal justice reform is “very important,” and 63 percent said judges should have the freedom to assign forms of punishments other than prison, which is the opposite of what mandatory-minimum sentences require.”

It will be interesting to note if the new policy will target mainly minorities, as in the past or include individuals across the country involved in the “new” opioid drug epidemic. There is a provision in the new drug policy that will allow for prosecutors to use their judgment. As a former prosecutor, I know that discretion is rarely allowed when a policy calls for the highest sentences and charges.

I suspect that as in the past, the majority of those getting arrested, charged and sent to prison will be people of color. Studies have found that minorities and whites use drugs at or about the same rate. Yet, prisons overflow with people of color. African Americans are disproportionately targeted and sent to prison for lengthy jail sentences in the mandatory-minimum era. That was one of the underlying reasons why Attorney General Eric Holder sought to change the policies.

The new war on drugs, a la Sessions style, should have everyone concerned. And this time around unlike the 1980’s Regan era, everyone who knows someone with a drug problem should have reason for concern. The new policy will likely affect John and Jamal.

Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former Baltimore prosecutor. She often appears on MSNBC, PBS, CBS News, Al Jazeera and Fox 5 DC.

Why No Federal Charges for George Zimmerman

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

trayvon_martin_zimmermanThe Department of Justice announced today that it will not seek federal civil rights violation charges against George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012.   Following the acquittal of Zimmerman in July, 2013, the Justice Department began its investigation on whether there was sufficient evidence to charge and convict Zimmerman under federal statutes. In the end, due to the high standard in these cases, Attorney General Eric Holder found that the evidence would not meet the standard of proof. While the evidence did not warrant federal criminal charges, the death of Trayvon Martin sadly remains a case that is still a bitter pill to swallow for many persons in the African American community. Trayvon Martin, armed with only iced tea and Skittle candy was approached and killed for being in a Sanford, Florida neighborhood where George Zimmerman believed that he did not belong. Wearing a hoodie, he was walking back to the home of his father’s fiancé at the time after leaving a convenience store when Zimmerman encountered him.

The Justice Department, according to the statement issued today,  reviewed what amounted to thousands of pages from the trial transcript, interviewed 75 witnesses, reviewed previous criminal encounters by Zimmerman and conducted biomechanical expert analysis to assess Zimmerman’s description and account of the incident to see if there were sufficient grounds to charge Zimmerman. Unlike the state criminal case, the federal statutes under review would have required a higher finding of evidence that Zimmerman willfully which means knowingly knew he was violating the law when he approached Trayvon and ultimately shot him. In addition, the statutes under the Hate Crime Act and one involving housing rights required that the federal government prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman committed the crime because Trayvon Martin was black. There had to be a racial motive, in this case, for the Justice Department to proceed under the federal statutes.  The Department of Justice pursued the actions of Zimmerman from beginning point of the encounter to the killing to see if any evidence existed to make its case.

While many persons believe that Zimmerman did have his encounter due to Trayvon Martin’s race, proving it beyond a reasonable doubt was going to be an insurmountable task. In the end analysis, proving that George Zimmerman knew his actions were illegal or unlawful and proceeded anyway to commit threatening acts and murder due to Trayvon Martin’s race was too high of a standard for the Justice Department to meet.   Coupled with the fact that Zimmerman was Hispanic, of Peruvian background, was also a factor for consideration. And let’s not forget that Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws on self-defense would factor into Zimmerman’s motives, if a trial occurred. However, Zimmerman’s attorneys are wrong with their assertions as to why the case could not be brought. Mark O’Mara and Don West said that Zimmerman was not a racist as he had black friends and tutored two black kids. That really has absolutely no bearing on whether or not he committed the crime against Trayvon Martin due to his race. The federal law requires only proof of the specific incident in question as being a willful crime committed due to a racial motive.   Having a black friend does not mean that Zimmerman could not be charged under the federal statute.

 

The case of Trayvon Martin did spark a racial conversation. With the acquittal of Zimmerman and now the end of the federal case, the race conversation must continue. It won’t bring back Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown or Eric Garner. The race conversation must be one that continues beyond this case.

 

Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor who appears frequently in the media addressing issues on law and politics at the intersection of race, gender and class.

AG Eric Holder Announces Strides in Sentencing

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

Eric_Holder_official_portraitOn Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at the Press Club in D.C. and gave what may be one of his last speeches before stepping down. He announced that there have been quantitative strides in his actions taken to reform criminal sentencing in America. Holder realized very early on that the criminal disparities in sentencing in drug cases resulted in African Americans being sentenced to higher sentences and to mandatory minimums. Attorney General Holder stated, “For years prior to this administration, federal prosecutors were not only encouraged – but required – to always seek the most severe prison sentence possible for all drug cases, no matter the relative risk they posed to public safety. I have made a break from that philosophy.” Data compiled by the U.S. Sentencing Commission shows that the efforts made by Holder have helped to dramatically reduce mandatory minimums and to reserve higher and harsher sentencing to more serious offenders. Attorney General Holder’s approach was to reserve the more severe sentences to those offenders that deserved it, instead of indiscriminately applying harsh sentences to every drug defendant coming before a federal court. The change in policies affects the nonviolent drug cases and allows the federal prosecutors to use discretion in these cases.

Attorney General Holder’s approach as Attorney General was to make America less dependent or reliant on incarceration. He noted in his speech the effect of the previous approach to criminal justice saying “After all, although the United States comprises just five percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of its prisoners. While the entire U.S. population has increased by about a third since 1980, the federal prison population has grown by almost 800 percent over the same period.” And most studies have shown that this increased incarceration has not improved safety to our communities. But studies have shown that African American men and Hispanic men make up almost 50% of the U.S. prison population while black men make up 6% of the U.S. population. The Sentencing Commission confirms that numbers show that federal prosecutors sought mandatory minimum penalties at a lower rate in 2014 than in any other year on record.

Attorney General was responsible for having President Obama to sign the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the inappropriate and unjust 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. And although the disparate gap was reduced to approximately 18-1, it is a vast improvement. African Americans are more likely to use crack cocaine over white Americans, while white Americans more likely use powder cocaine. Yet, crack cocaine uses powder cocaine as a base. There should not be any distinction in sentencing between the two.

Perhaps, the effects of Holder’s change in U.S. attitudes to incarceration can be seen in places like Kentucky, Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania – where governors and legislatures of both parties have provided a model for others to emulate by directing funds away from prison construction and towards programs designed to reduce recidivism. Building new prisons in communities is not the answer to the issues of criminal justice.

Overall, in Fiscal Year 2014, the U.S saw its first reduction in the federal prison population in 32 years. And perhaps, more importantly, the U.S, under Holder and the Obama administration has achieved side-by-side reductions in both crime and incarceration in more than 40 years. Holder stated that improvements and changes to the criminal justice system under his leadership are just a beginning for laying a foundation for a new era in American justice.  If confirmed by the Senate,  hopefully, US Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch will continue to work on and improve upon what Attorney General Eric Holder has successfully started under the Obama Administration.

Eric Holder’s Resignation Will Leave a Void

Friday, September 26th, 2014

Eric_Holder_official_portrait

It is with sadness and a heavy heart that I heard the news of Attorney General Eric Holder resigning as U.S. Attorney General.  Yet, I know that everything that has a beginning has an ending.   Attorney General Holder is the fourth longest serving Attorney General.

 

As the first African American Attorney General, Eric Holder has been one of the best Attorney General’s that has served at the Department of Justice. I have felt that he  has carried the true meaning of the Justice Department and the Constitution in fighting  for “liberty and justice for all”.  Those words have not been realized for everyone in our imperfect union.  And with the fights against equal access to the voting ballot, the basis and backbone of our democracy, I find that Eric Holder has fought the hardest battles.  His strong support for reducing the disproportionate sentencing guidelines of African Americans in certain drug cases showed strength and power to do the right thing.  His fights  and firm stance against the GOP who sanctioned him  and found him in contempt of Congress for doing his job showed grace under fire.  Every time that I have had an opportunity to hear him speak in person, I have taken the opportunity.

 

And  Mr. Holder’s  most recent stance in coming to Ferguson, MO, to show support for the community as the highest ranking justice official, gave calm to a volatile situation.  He has recently spoke about police power should be exhibited fairly and just in reviewing the case of Michael Brown and other similar cases across the country.  Attorney General Holder has never strayed  from speaking his mind on race issues.  That’s why he called the U.S. a nation of cowards for our failure to do the work of justice and address the issues of racism in this country.

 

It is my hope that his work will continue with his successor.  His work must continue and the dream must   move towards reality.  In his words, Attorney General Holder said:

 

“Work remains to be done – but our list of accomplishments is real.  Over the last six years, our Administration has made historic gains in realizing the principles of the founding documents, and fought to protect the most sacred of American rights: the right to vote.  We have begun to realize the promise of equality for our LGBT brothers and sisters and their families.  We have begun to significantly reform our criminal justice system and reconnect those who bravely serve in law enforcement with the communities they protect.  We have kept faith with our belief in the power of the greatest judicial system the world has ever known to fairly and effectively adjudicate any cases that are brought before it, including those that involve the security of the nation we both love so dearly.  We have taken steps to protect the environment and make more fair the rules by which our commercial enterprises operate.  And we have held accountable those who would harm the American people either through violent means or the misuse of economic or political power.”

 

Thank you Mr. Holder for all that you have done to advance the dream of liberty and justice for all.