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How drug policy reformers pulled Eric Holder along

No sooner did U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announce Monday that the Justice Department would take steps to reduce the number of people sent to prison for drug crimes than the story line among national reporters became “Democrats finally are acting like Democrats again.”

It was a view pushed by Politico, in particular, and it makes sense — after decades of being afraid of looking soft on crime, Democrats like Holder finally are deviating from the lock-’em-up attitudes that gained such favor with the public during the Reagan Administration. But Democratic leaders are doing so now only because they’ve got a little more political cover from the right, with leading Republicans, such as Jeb Bush, and deeply red states, such as Texas, pushing for alternatives to prison, such as drug treatment, for low level, non-violent drug offenders.

After decades of throwing such drug offenders into prison, all we’ve got to show for it is an enormous prison bill. Nobody would argue that we’ve gained an inch in the so-called war on drugs.

The “New Democrat” centrist Clinton Administration, for example, made little effort to reform our nation’s draconian mandatory sentencing laws for drug offenses, never wanting to risk the political capital. But the views of a spokesman for the White House National Drug Police Office during the Clinton Administration, Robert Weiner, were strongly pro-reform, as he later made clear in a Chicago Sun-Times opinion piece.

“There is a solution other than putting drug abusers behind bars — drug treatment,” Weiner and a co-writer argued in the 2010 Sun-Times op-ed. “Instead of mandatory sentencing for drug abuse, more drug treatment in prison and more ‘drug courts’ providing treatment instead of prison should be mandatory.”

Eric Holder said nothing Wednesday that other Democrats — including, to their credit, Gov. Pat Quinn and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle — haven’t been saying for years. But he said it as the attorney general of the United States, marking a wholesale change in tone and substance by the executive branch of the federal government.

Is Holder leading the way? We’d say he’s more leading from behind, pulled along by the likes of Weiner and Quinn and Preckwinkle and the excellent work of any number of drug policy reform groups, such as Chicago’s Metropolis Strategies.

However it’s happening, it’s about time it did.