WASHINGTON Two decisions Monday, one by a federal judge in New York and the other by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., were powerful signals that the pendulum has swung away from the tough-on-crime policies of a generation ago. Those policies have been denounced as discriminatory and responsible for explosive growth in the prison population.
Critics have long contended that draconian mandatory-minimum-sentence laws for low-level drug offenses, as well as stop-and-frisk police policies that target higher-crime and minority neighborhoods, have a disproportionate impact on minorities. On Monday, Holder announced that federal prosecutors would no longer invoke the sentencing laws, and a judge found that New York stop-and-frisk practices were unconstitutional racial profiling.
While the timing was a coincidence, Barbara Arnwine, the president of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said that the effect was "historic, groundbreaking, and potentially game-changing."
"I thought that the most important significance of both events was the sense of enough is enough," said Arnwine, who attended the San Francisco speech where Holder unveiled the new Justice Department policy. " This just can't continue, this level of extreme heightened injustice in our policing, our law enforcement and our criminal justice system."
A generation ago, amid a crack epidemic, state and federal lawmakers enacted a wave of tough-on-crime measures that resulted in an 800 percent increase in the number of prisoners in the United States, even as the population grew by only a third. The spike in prisoners centered on an increase in the number of black and Latino men convicted of drug crimes; blacks are about six times as likely as whites to be incarcerated.
But the crack wave has long since passed and violent crime rates have plummeted to four-decade lows, in the process reducing crime as a salient political issue. Traditionally conservative states, driven by a need to save money on building and maintaining prisons, have taken the lead in scaling back policies of mass incarceration.
Against that backdrop, the move away from mandatory sentences and Judge Shira A. Scheindlin's ruling on stop-and-frisk practices signaled that a course correction on big criminal justice issues that disproportionately affect minorities has finally been made.
Scheindlin found that the New York Police Department resorted to a "policy of indirect racial profiling" as it increased the number of stops in minority communities. That has led to officers routinely stopping "blacks and Hispanics who would not have been stopped if they were white."
Michelle Alexander, an Ohio State University law professor who wrote "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," an influential 2010 book about the racial impact of policies like stop-and-frisk and mandatory minimum drug sentences, said the two developments gave her a sense of "cautious optimism."
"The path that we have been on for the past 40 years has caused far more harm than it has prevented," she said.
But not everyone was celebrating.
Stop-and-frisk supporters in New York say the tactic has helped cut crime there to new lows, and saved the lives of thousands of young black and Latino men by taking thousands of guns off the streets.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg angrily accused the judge of denying the city "a fair trial," and said the city would file an appeal. Bloomberg also said he hoped that the appeal process would allow current stop-and-frisk practices to continue because "I wouldn't want to be responsible for a lot of people dying."
William G. Otis, an ex-federal prosecutor, called Holder's move a victory for drug dealers that would promote greater sales of addictive contraband, and he suggested the stop-and-frisk ruling could be overturned on appeal.
Yet Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a research group, said many police chiefs agreed that it was time to rethink mandatory sentencing for low-level drug offenses. And he said departments across the country would examine the New York stop-and-frisk ruling "to see if their practices pass muster."
But he added: "In most large cities, crime is concentrated in poor areas which are predominantly minority. The question becomes, what tactics are acceptable in those communities to reduce crime?"