WASHINGTON, D.C. — FAMM President Julie Stewart expressed hope and frustration following Attorney General Eric Holder’s appearance at the House Judiciary Committee hearing on May 15. Said Stewart:
“Attorney General Holder’s comments at the Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday and in a recent speech sounded like a page from FAMM talking points playbook. They give me hope that this Administration is beginning to understand that we cannot incarcerate our nation’s drug problem away. He finally admitted what we have been saying all along: we lock up too many people who pose no threat to public safety, like nonviolent drug offenders, and deny compassionate release to sick and dying prisoners in the federal Bureau of Prisons. He also said we need a new approach at the Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA). Attorney General Holder is saying all the right things. Now he and President Obama must take the next step and carry out their agenda.”
At the hearing, Mr. Holder discussed mandatory sentencing reform for nonviolent drug offenders, the Bureau of Prisons’ compassionate release program, and President Obama’s power to grant commutations or pardons.
Responding to a question from Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Mr. Holder said, “I’ve put together a working group to look at exactly who we have imprisoned in our Bureau of Prisons and to make sure that we are holding the appropriate people for appropriate lengths of time, and to see whether or not there are some changes that we need to be made… We have, for instance, over 133 people, I think, who above the age of 80 in the federal prison system. I think we have about 35 over the age of 85. Now, there may be good reasons why they should serve the rest of their lives in jail. On the other hand, it may be that there is a basis for them to be released. So we are looking at this question overall as to what our prison population looks like, whether the commutation policy should be changed.”
In response to a question from Rep. Holding (R-N.C.) on his recent comments about mandatory sentencing laws, Mr. Holder said, “And I think that these mandatory minimum sentences that we see, particularly when it comes to drugs, are unnecessarily long, and don’t actually go to the purposes of sentencing. That is, deterrence and rehabilitation.”
If the Obama Administration and Attorney General Holder are serious about walking the walk, there are several ways they can prove it, including:
- Supporting passage of the Justice Safety Valve Act. On May 24, Representatives Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY) introduced a House version (H.R. 1695) of the bill that Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced in the Senate in March (S. 619). The bill has been endorsed by leaders and organizations from across the political spectrum, including Americans for Tax Reform, Prison Fellowship, National Association of Evangelicals, the ACLU, and the NAACP. Support from President Obama and Attorney General Holder is critical to getting this bill passed.
- Implementing recommendations in the OIG and FAMM/Human Rights Watch reports on compassionate release. The OIG report, which Holder characterized as “ very useful,” recommended expanding the use of compassionate release, publishing consistent guidelines for its use, tracking costs of incarcerating dying and incapacitated prisoners, and establishing humane timeframes for reviewing release requests.
- Using executive clemency to fix all excessive sentences. The Attorney General said there are “too many” people serving lengthy sentences “for no good law enforcement reason.” The Attorney General should let President Obama know of these prisoners, and the President should commute their sentences immediately. Commutations could also be used to reduce sentences for crack prisoners who didn’t benefit from the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA). The President should use his power to commute sentences for every deserving prisoner who was sentenced under the old, unfair law.
Said Stewart, “FAMM has plenty of other reform ideas, but the ones above would be a good start. If the President would make these initiatives his top criminal justice priorities, he would bend the arc of justice towards thousands of people who deserve it.”