Eric Holder’s War on the War on Drugs

The attorney general's remarks on Monday represent a striking transformation in federal criminal-justice policy.

Eric Holder (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“Like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race,” explains Alexander. This broken justice system undermines citizenship rights for people of color in general, especially poor African Americans.

Holder’s candid acknowledgment in San Francisco that “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law-enforcement reason” represents a striking transformation in federal criminal-justice policy, one that parallels the reasoning of some of the leading critics of mass incarceration. Last week during an NPR interview that served as a prelude to his ABA speech, Holder more explicitly channeled aspects of Alexander’s argument. “There’s been a kind of decimation of certain communities,” he noted in a discussion of the drug wars, “in particular, communities of color.”

For the black community, Holder’s efforts to “take bold steps” to transform the nation’s justice system represent a significant step forward for American democracy. More black men and women now languish in federal, state and local jails under current drug policies than during the 1963 March on Washington. The attorney general’s admission that the nation’s criminal-justice system is, in a very large sense, broken offers evidence that social-justice movements in the 21st century can fundamentally impact public policy in important ways.

Holder’s discussion of the fact that “people of color often face harsher penalties than their peers” was “shameful” and “unworthy” of America’s democratic ideals is both a welcome and timely moral and political intervention. America’s entire criminal-justice system, from courts to prisons and jails, is broken precisely because of a long history and continuing legacy of institutional racism.

Politically, Holder’s speech presented the new policies as a “commonsense” approach to law enforcement that follows several red states, including Kentucky and Texas, that have enacted policy reforms designed to ease prison overcrowding and save state budgets and taxpayer dollars. Holder’s speech offered a range of new policy proposals to offer judges more sentencing discretion, curtail the public “school-to-prison pipeline,” prevent violence against women and ensure that all defendants get legal right to counsel.

In many ways Holder has served as Obama’s progressive alter ego, boldly proclaiming the importance of racial justice and American democracy in ways that the president has not. Make no mistake. The attorney general’s words reflect the president’s political and moral commitments. Holder’s speech represents an important step in the nation’s frustratingly uneven journey toward racial justice and genuine democracy. 

Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. Follow him on Twitter. The center will convene a National Dialogue on Race Day on Sept. 12, 2013, and invites all to join in the conversation. Follow the center on Twitter.