ADVERTISEMENT

At last, from the highest office in American law enforcement, some common sense on drugs. Attorney General Eric H. Holder last week directed his 94 U.S. attorneys across the country to stop laying charges that carry harsh mandatory sentences against low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

The reasons are clear and beyond dispute. The nation's federal prisons are bulging with people whose crimes don't merit the punishment, and those convicted are disproportionately poor and minority. An unfair law is being implemented unfairly. What is remarkable is that it took so long to reach this point.

Severe drug laws were implemented in the 1970s, and include New York's now-infamous Rockefeller drug laws, which imposed cruel sentences – there's no other way to put it – on casual drug users. They expanded in the 1980s as the crack epidemic hit, along with its associated violence.

The problem was real, but the response didn't accomplish much beyond making Americans feel that something was being done about it. And the cost was high: dangerous prison overcrowding that was having a social impact and straining government budgets. Holder has taken a step back toward sanity.

Drug use is illegal, and while there is a reasonable question as to whether it should be illegal – we're not entirely sure of the answer to that question – it should be obvious by now that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who aren't associated with gangs need to be treated differently from large-scale suppliers and those who commit other crimes associated with drug use.

In presenting his plan, Holder noted that the federal prison population has grown almost 800 percent since 1980. Has there really been that great an increase in criminal conduct to merit such an increase in imprisonment?

Drug use is a human weakness and in some cases can even be described as an illness. Plenty of those kinds of behaviors are no longer criminalized, including gambling and alcohol abuse.

While it is not in society's interest to encourage drug abuse, it is entirely sensible to treat abusers differently from killers, rapists, embezzlers and traitors. Drug abusers are people who need help, and some states are already coming to that conclusion. Even Texas has reduced its prison population by offering drug treatment and changes in its parole policies.

New York is also ahead of the curve on much of this. Indeed, U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul of Buffalo says his office already has a track record of focusing on those cases that involve violence, gangs or large-scale criminal organizations.

Holder is also pushing to change mandatory minimum sentence laws. That also should be a priority. We hire judges to judge, not to be bound by inflexible laws that allow no consideration of mitigating factors. If they get it wrong sometimes, that's better than laws that get it wrong most of the time.

Some critics in Congress say Holder shouldn't be deciding on his own not to prosecute certain cases. Instead, they say, he should work with Congress to change those laws. He should. It is far better to settle this matter legislatively, thereby binding future administrations to a better approach.

But Holder should proceed. There is no honor in enforcing an unjust law.