Holder claims credit for drop in federal drug prosecutions but is that the whole story?

Posted at 5:05 PM, Feb 17, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-19 17:43:28-05

On Tuesday, outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder lauded declines in federal drug prosecutions, a cornerstone of his Smart on Crime initiative and, perhaps, a cherry on top of his tenure.

At the National Press Club, Holder outlined a new data set which shows that drug offenders facing mandatory minimum sentences have fallen in the last year. That decline, Holder argued, is indicative of the success of policies he implemented during his tenure at the Department of Justice, but research shows that there could be something else at play. 

According to data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission obtained by the Associated Press, there has been a 13 percent drop in cases where prosecutors asked for the mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug cases. There was also a 6 percent dip in the number of federal drug trafficking prosecutions.

All of this looks great for Holder, whose Smart on Crime initiative called for policy reform for non-violent drug offenders. Could the program, which was rolled out in summer 2013, have contributed to the drop in drug prosecutions? Holder, at least, seems convinced that he had something to do with it.

“For years prior to this administration, federal prosecutors were not only encouraged – but required – to always seek the most severe prison sentence possible for all drug cases, no matter the relative risk they posed to public safety,” Holder said in his Tuesday speech. “I have made a break from that philosophy.  While old habits are hard to break, these numbers show that a dramatic shift is underway in the mindset of prosecutors handling nonviolent drug offenses.”

There is certainly a shifting “mindset,” but it might not be the prosecutors, policy makers or even Holder himself at the root of it – research indicates that it could be larger shift in public opinion.

Peter Enns, an assistant political science professor at Cornell, published a paper last spring that showed a striking correlation between incarceration rates and the public’s attitude toward being tough on crime. Enns explored how the court of public opinion has influenced the policies and legislation from a distance, making it a “fundamental determinant” of the changes of the incarceration rate.

Could this pattern extend to softening on drug policies? A Pew Research poll released last April showed that 67 percent of Americans wanted the government to focus on treatment for drug users rather than prosecution.

Additionally, 63 percent of respondents said it was a “good thing” that states were moving away from mandatory prison sentences for non-violent drug crimes. In 2001, only 47 percent thought it was a positive step.

Holder may have been a strong voice in calling for shift in police tactics, but he hasn’t been the only one.

[Also by Abby Johnston: Sexual assault task force - still a lot to do]

Want to keep up with all the latest DecodeDC stories and podcasts? Sign up for our weekly newsletter at