After over 1,600 days in office, one rhetorical but unreal end to the war on drugs, and scores of state-law-violating, promise-breaking medical-marijuana raids, the Obama administration did something useful yesterday. In a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco, Attorney General Eric Holder said he would direct the Justice Department to no longer seek mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent, low-level drug offenders. There’s a lot more that needs to happen to address the systemic inequalities perpetuated by the drug war—and a ton of work needs to be done at the state and local levels—but this is a hell of a step in the right direction.

Mandatory minimums are laws that require judges to hand out brutally long sentences to defendants convicted of a variety of crimes. They originated in the 50s as part of aggressive anti-marijuana legislation, and while those laws were repealed in the 70s, the idea of mandatory minimums came back with a hysterical vengeance during the Reagan years. Juries are generally not informed of mandatory minimums when they are deciding court cases, and judges have no way to lessen sentences either; it’s a method of punishment both draconian and robotic. The most bizarre, tragic stories about mandatory minimums feature judges who want to send a drug offender away for some lesser sentence, but are unable to do so.

The rest here.

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