On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder delivered a historic speech at the American Bar Association in San Francisco, skewering the country’s tactics in the war on drugs. Mandatory minimum prison terms for drug offenses, which became law under President Ronald Reagan, often result in excessive sentences, Holder declared, which “breed disrespect for the system,” “do not serve public safety,” and damage communities, “largely poor and of color.”
Prison reform advocates, and even some federal judges, have been making these claims for years. But what do the original authors of these laws think? Do they stand by their legislation, or has the rapid increase in the numbers of young black and Hispanic men behind bars shifted their thinking? America Tonight spoke with former Rep. E. Clay Shaw, Jr. (R-Fla.), who helped draft the landmark Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which created the mandatory minimum penalties. Shaw spent 26 years representing South Florida before retiring in 2007, and we asked the now 74-year-old how he feels about this controversial piece of his legacy. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Why did you feel the need for much harsher punishments for drug-related crimes?
I went to Congress in 1980. I’d been a mayor, a prosecutor, and a judge, and I’d never heard of crack cocaine. But it started popping up like crazy. It was the drug of choice for the least affluent. It’s like welfare reform; we looked at it as a rescue mission, not as a source of punishment.
Why did you decide on mandatory minimum sentences?
It was a time of tremendous change, and change not for the better. We went in and looked everything over and decided that minimum maximum sentences would be quite appropriate on quite a lot of these, because there were too many people just walking. It was as a maximum deterrent for these guys, these drug dealers running neighborhoods.
Things are bad today, but they were really bad back then. ... We were trying to nip it in the bud and snip it out. That stuff is just so addictive. Anything we could have done to keep it out of the hands of young people.
Did the laws have the effect you thought they would?
It calmed it down some. We always hoped for the best, and obviously drugs are still a big problem out there. This wasn’t a cure-all.
Do you think you were right?
I think Congress should go back and look at this stuff once in awhile. If you’re loading the prisons with nonviolent criminals, I think it’s time to take a look at it, and see if previous Congresses -- including mine -- overreacted.
At the time, were you concerned that these laws might have a discriminatory impact on minorities?
Hell, it was minority neighborhoods being torn apart by the drug dealers. It’s the usual suspects who scream discrimination, but we were trying to help those areas. They’re not catching the drug dealers in Georgetown [in Washington D.C.].
Do you think these mandatory minimums should be wiped from the books?
I do think that Congress ought to take a look at this and give some flexibility. There should still be some sentencing standards, but hard and fast 10-year minimum maximums, 20-year minimum maximums, those ought to be really looked at, and the prison population, and what the result of the legislation has been. Just because we passed it 10, 20 years ago doesn’t mean it can’t be changed. That’s the beauty of our government.
Do you think the punishments are too severe in some cases?
If you get a guy who’s feeding his own habit by selling, those cases ought to be looked at again and see if the punishment fits the crime, compared to other crimes, state and federal.
Eric Sterling, who was counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee at the time, has come out and said this legislation was very hastily written, and the penalties largely arbitrary. Is that true?
I think we studied it. ... We were dealing with a new problem. We had extensive hearings.
Was there anyone on the House Judiciary Committee who really led the charge for mandatory minimums?
Any credit should go to all of us, and any mistakes. Our motives were pure. We may have overreacted a little bit, and the fact that the problem is still with us merits another look at the whole thing.
So do you think Eric Holder is right to mandate a change in charging policies for certain low-level, nonviolent offenders?
I don’t feel totally comfortable supporting Holder, but a broken clock is right once or twice a day. ... You get older, and it gets dangerous when you start seeing both sides of an argument.