One of the most riveting shows on Black Entertainment Television was American Gangster, a television series that documented the most powerful gangsters and drug dealers in the African American community. It used upbringing to understand their behavior, while showcasing neighborhoods dying at the same rate as drug users because of the distribution of drugs. Watching the effects drugs had on families and neighborhoods in addition to the users, would make any community demand for harsher punishment of drug offenders.
But hindsight is 20/20, and while harsher sentencing sounded great at the time, for many it created more problems. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 set mandatory minimum sentences based on several factors including quantity of drug, type of drug, and extenuating circumstances like a second time offender or the presence of a firearm when drugs were discovered. For example being convicted of possession with the intent to distribute five grams of crack cocaine is a five-year sentence. For a second time offender, the sentence is ten years. If the individual is carrying a firearm, another five years is added to the sentence.
According to Attorney General Eric Holder, the guidelines created the following problems: increased the prison population 800%, cost the US billions of dollars, and was disparately applied to African Americans. The Fair Sentencing Act tried to decrease such disparity, but African Americans remain incarcerated at a higher rate than other races for drug related offenses.
Recently, the Attorney General announced that the Department of Justice will no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenders. He explained that what had incited the guidelines, the war on drugs, has been ineffective and unsustainable for solving the problem. He proposed replacing some mandatory sentences with drug treatment and community service programs. Is he overstepping his authority?
Michael Mukasey, former Attorney General under President Bush, disagrees with mandatory minimums but rejects Holder’s approach stating that it is the role of Congress to change law. William Otis, a former federal prosecutor, also rejected Holder’s approach arguing that the sentences have deterred certain drug offenses. This is not the first time a federal agency has used its enforcement power to change the application of federal law, but is sidestepping branches of government the answer? Though Congress during the second term of President Obama’s administration has been slow to take action, does that justify Holder’s decision not to enforce federal laws?