Former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder called for significant reforms to America’s criminal justice system, including a reduction and in some cases elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing, in a speech at the David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum on April 24.
Now in its 21st year, the annual event provides a venue to discuss policies and programs of particular relevance to urban America. In addition to the keynote address, highlights included a discussion panel and the announcement of a new initiative in honor of David Dinkins to raise money for student fellowships.
Holder, who was the first African American to lead the Justice Department, served for more than six years from the outset of the Obama administration. As attorney general, he said, he enjoyed a historic opportunity to improve the fairness and efficiency of the criminal justice system because a rare consensus that had emerged in favor of a series of reforms including federal drug-sentencing laws.
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He highlighted the joining in 2015 of conservative stakeholders like Charles Koch and David Koch and Tea Party members with progressive voices like the Center for American Progress and the ACLU in a new coalition to discuss the cause. President Obama, he added, convened a bipartisan collection of lawmakers to discuss possible congressional action.
“What emerged was bipartisan consensus that enabled some reform but not enough,” Holder said. “Progress was made, but there was much more left undone [and] I was hopeful at the time the work would be advanced regardless of who sat in the White House.”
But that progress, Holder said, has been reversed under the Trump administration. Now we face polarization around an issue that should “invoke our compassion, our humanity and our morality as a nation,” he said.
Even so, Holder said he draws hope from the grassroots energy that he sees around him today.
“We must rely on all of you, the young, the engaged and the enraged to carry us to a better day and to be bold in the face of such adversity,” he said.
Holder then asked the audience to think about the kind of policies and mechanisms that are used to enforce our laws, and if there were alternatives to incarceration.
He discussed his own experience with the “Smart on Crime” program initiative, an innovative program that that the Justice Department pursued in 2013. The initiative, he explained, helped reorient the federal government’s approach by lowering draconian sentences and investing in rehabilitation programs. This led to a simultaneous drop in both incarceration and crime rates, the first consonant reduction of this nature in more than four decades.
Expressing disappointment that the program was recently discontinued by the Trump administration, Holder highlighted alternate avenues for reform.
“Now is the time that we should rely on other institutions and other people to enact the reform that we so desperately need,” he said. “We must call on our representatives to stand in opposition to the White House and Justice Department, they must not compromise in order to appease a misguided administration.”
Holder offered five specific recommendations to help fix the system. First and foremost, he suggested an across-the-board reduction in the length of mandatory minimum sentences and the elimination of some. Second, he said that in the absence of parole there should be an increase in credit given to all inmates who have conducted themselves in an appropriate way while incarcerated.
Third, he called for increased budgetary support for federal drug courts, to create such a court in every federal district within five years. Fourth, the remaining disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine violations must be eliminated. Lastly, there should be financial and programmatic support for reentry programs
In closing, Holder exhorted the audience and communities everywhere to engage, explicitly appealing to a broad cross-section of American society.
“The call to action must extend to states whose governors and legislators can enact the reform that we need at the state and local level,” he said. “Our call to action must also extend to all of us.
“An energized American citizenry is capable of making real substantial and positive change,” he said.Holder is a graduate of Columbia College and Columbia Law School and said he was pleased to be speaking at his alma mater. In November 2017 the College announced the creation of the Eric H. Holder Initiative for Civil and Political Rights to develop programs that advance our understanding of civil and political rights in the United States and abroad.
In welcoming remarks at the event’s outset, Holder was praised as a trailblazer by Dinkins, the event’s namesake. The former attorney general lauded the SIPA professor and former New York City mayor in turn.
Dean Merit E. Janow announced that SIPA has launched an effort to raise money for David N. Dinkins Public Policy Fellowships, which will support outstanding students at SIPA who exemplify Dinkins’s commitment to service and leadership and enhance diversity at the School.
Dinkins organized the first forum soon after joining the SIPA faculty in 1994. Since then forums have covered a range of issues including education, the environment, labor, tourism, immigration, and fiscal crises; previous keynote speakers include John Lewis, Loretta Lynch, Hillary Clinton, Bill de Blasio, Michael Bloomberg, and Al Gore.
A discussion of “The Incarceration Crisis that Threatens America's Democracy” followed Holder’s speech. Panelists included Greg Berman of the Center for Court Innovation, SIPA’s Michael Nutter, Ana Oliveira of the New York Women’s Foundation, and Vesla Weaver of Johns Hopkins University. SIPA’s Ester R. Fuchs moderated.
— Neha Sharma MPA ’18 and Mia Shuang Li MPA ’18