I was pleased to hear Attorney General Holder make his announcement about reducing sentencing for low-level drug crimes, not because I thought what he planned to do would have much practical effect (still depending on prosecutors to use judgement), but rather because it appeared that the announcement might end up being non-controversial.
So many politicians still labor under the old notion that anything but “tough on drugs” is a third-rail position. What was important here was not Holder’s comment, but the lack of political “gotcha” reaction to it.
As Steve Chapman notes in Drug Warriors in Retreat
So when Holder gave a speech announcing that the Justice Department would minimize the use of stiff mandatory sentences in some drug cases, it was reasonable to expect a storm of protests from Republicans accusing him of flooding our streets with crack dealers and meth heads.
Instead, the response bordered on the soporific. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, reported Politico, gently suggested that the administration “work with Congress on policies it wants to implement instead of consistently going around it.” Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, who has previously called for criminal prosecution of Holder, echoed Cruz’s view, while admitting that “reducing mandatory minimums may be good policy.”
Instead of tepid criticism, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky offered outright praise, calling the change “a welcome development.” Hardly anyone in the GOP cared to defend the merciless approach. At least when it comes to low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, both parties have lost their appetite for locking the cell and tossing the key.
I think there may have been some border sheriff who raised a stink about Holder’s announcement, but otherwise, silence.
Nobody in the media or politics (to the extent that they differ) was going to criticize this move. (Even prohibitionists supported it, since they’ve been forced by us to tack toward the kinder, gentler prohibition.) And believe me, that fact will be noticed by the lily-livered politicians who have good intentions, but are afraid to be seen as soft on crime.
Holder’s statement is not an indication that the Obama administration wants to actually do something important about our serious incarceration problem (after all, Obama could easily commute sentences of prisoners who had received ridiculously long sentences, yet he has chosen to be very stingy in that area). It is, however, additional proof of a change in political climate that could very well embolden Congress or future Presidents.