Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said he looked forward to working on the issue with Holder and senators of both parties.
But support was not universal. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said Holder “cannot unilaterally ignore the laws or the limits on his executive powers. While the attorney general has the ability to use prosecutorial discretion in individual cases, that authority does not extend to entire categories of people.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said whether the law needs to be changed should be decided by the Congress, along with the president.
“Instead we’re seeing the president attempt to run roughshod over the direct representatives of the people elected to write the laws,” Grassley said. “The overreach by the administration to unilaterally decide which laws to enforce and which laws to ignore is a disturbing trend.”
Still, the impact of Holder’s initiative could be significant, said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a private group involved in research and policy reform of the criminal justice system.
African-Americans and Hispanics probably would benefit the most from a change. African-Americans account for about 30 percent of federal drug convictions each year and Hispanics account for 40 percent, according to Mauer.
If state policy-makers were to adopt similar policies, the impact of changes at the state level could be even broader. Currently, about 225,000 state prisoners are incarcerated for drug offenses, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. One national survey from 15 years ago by the Sentencing Project found that 58 percent of state drug offenders had no history of violence or high-level drug dealing.
“These proportions on state prisoners may have shifted somewhat since that time, but it’s still likely that a substantial proportion of state drug offenders fall into that category today,” said Mauer.