Eric Holder's Reforms: Justice Delayed

The attorney general's criminal-justice plans sound good, but many states have already taken the lead on this issue.

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Individuals charged in the types of cases Holder described in his announcement account for about 10 percent of federal criminal cases. Nonviolent, low-level drug offenders -- for example, someone arrested for possession of marijuana or possession with intent to distribute marijuana -- usually don't become federal offenders. They usually are charged by state prosecutors.

And those low-level, nonviolent offenders without ties to gangs or drug organizations that Holder says should be given a break? Well, ask many police investigators, and they'll tell you that drug dealers usually get their products from the same few sources. If they do that regularly, in the eyes of detectives, that makes those dealers a part of a drug organization.

At least the Obama administration has joined a growing bipartisan chorus that says the U.S. criminal justice system needs to be overhauled. In remarks to the American Bar Association, Holder said, "A vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities … Many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems rather than alleviate them."

This new administration position catches up Holder and President Obama to previously announced positions taken publicly by the likes of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R), Grover Norquist, the conservative founder of Americans for Tax Reform, and the largest association of unions that represent corrections officers. They and others joined with the NAACP in 2011 to call on state legislatures to change corrections policies and shift state funds from corrections to education.

Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau, is pleased that the attorney general staked out this public position. "Let's not belittle this at all," Shelton says. "Talk to some of the mothers whose children have been locked away for years and years for a crime that does not measure up with the sentence. It means a lot to them. But does more need to be done? Of course."

Keith Harriston is a former reporter and editor at the Washington Post, where he covered public safety policy. He teaches journalism at Howard University, where he edits 

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