Upon news Thursday that Attorney General Eric Holder would step down from his post, participants at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s ongoing annual conference paused to reflect on his legacy on civil rights and racial justice.
“I think he deserves a great deal of acknowledgement for being in the forefront of efforts to reform the war on drugs and to reform our criminal justice system,” said Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office.
Murphy made the comments during a CBCF panel discussion on mass incarceration. The panel was moderated by Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, and also included Ben Crump, attorney for the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and James Craig, the Detroit chief of police.
“The Attorney General personally testified before the U.S. Sentencing Commission last year to make sure that non-violent prisoners could apply for early release. That may lead to some 46,000 people coming out of federal prisons,” said Murphy. “He pushed for the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. He’s instituted a clemency program where people who are incarcerated will get lawyers to apply for pardons and leave.”
Murphy and much of the panel agreed, however, that while Holder’s legacy regarding racial justice is significant, recent high-profile events — including the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri — highlight the need for an overhaul of the criminal justice system from policing to incarceration and sentencing.
“We as a people can make police,” Murphy said. “We are not powerless. We need to bring these issues to the elections in November.”
On the legislative side, Michigan Congressman John Conyers, who hosted the panel discussion, said that the Congressional Black Caucus is continuing its efforts to create laws that encourage effective, safe policing. Conyers called on Congress to adopt a number of measures including the End Racial Profiling Act, which creates a federal prohibition against racial profiling, mandates data collection by and provides funds for the retraining of law enforcement officials.
“Responding to this destructive cycle requires a broad-based approach,” he said.