Will Holder Have an Impact on Racial Disparities in Sentencing?

Is it realistic to expect Eric Holder to be a force for change in the criminal justice system?

For decades, the face of the criminal justice system in this country has been black and male: hundreds of thousands locked behind bars, arrested in disproportionate numbers and facing execution at rates far greater than those for the general population.

The Washington Post reports that many see Holder "as the best chance in decades to right what they consider unchecked racial injustice and insensitivity by federal officials." That's asking a lot from a former prosecutor who advocated mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenders, including marijuana distributors. Still, according to the Post story, Holder's friends say he became increasingly "concerned about young black men caught up in the criminal justice system" after he left office.

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At his confirmation hearing, when given a chance to express concern for the unfair federal penalties imposed on crack cocaine offenders, Holder demonstrated his mastery of the art of the non-answer:

But when Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) asked Holder at his confirmation hearing to work with Congress to promote more fairness in sentencing laws, he responded with the cool of a longtime judge and prosecutor: "We have to be tough. We have to be smart. And we have to be fair. Our criminal justice system has to be fair. It has to be viewed as being fair."

Tough but fair. What's that mean? Tough isn't always fair, particularly when it comes to crack sentencing and mandatory minimums.

How does Holder feel about this?

The sentence disparities have combined with social and economic factors to lead to the increasing number of African Americans in prison, a figure that has grown from 100,000 in 1954 -- the year of the Supreme Court's seminal school desegregation case -- to 900,000 today, according to the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group.

Perhaps Holder will be a force for change in a criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates black offenders, but the evidence to support that hope is scant. The jury is likely to be out on Holder for quite some time.

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    Until we get a former defender... (5.00 / 1) (#4)
    by kdog on Fri Feb 06, 2009 at 07:58:55 AM EST
    instead of a former prosecutor in this office, we ain't gonna see no change for the good.  Anybody who gives a damn about sentencing disparities, or liberty in general, doesn't become a prosecutor, or resigns soon after becoming a prosecutor.  Otherwise how would they sleep?

    States Rights (none / 0) (#1)
    by diogenes on Thu Feb 05, 2009 at 10:22:18 PM EST
    Since obama is such a firm believer in states rights (as in medical marijuana), why should the feds do much about state-based sentencing laws that happen to lead to racial disparities unless there are clear civil rights violations?

    Holder's impact (none / 0) (#2)
    by TChris on Thu Feb 05, 2009 at 10:33:11 PM EST
    would be on federal sentencing.

    short answer: no (none / 0) (#3)
    by cpinva on Fri Feb 06, 2009 at 12:05:21 AM EST
    Is it realistic to expect Eric Holder to be a force for change in the criminal justice system?

    it's not just not realistic, there's no precedence for it in mr. holder's professional history. as with bush, his (holder's) past will be prelude to his future.