Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:
This week, Eric Holder, the Attorney General, announced, essentially by executive decree, that the Obama Administration would no longer enforce the standing rules on mandatory-minimum sentencing for drug offenders—at least, not for otherwise unoffending individuals. This sounded big on its approach, then left a smaller wake on its departure. There seems to be pretty general pleasure at a decision that does something, however small, about the mad scandal of American incarceration, the almost unbelievable extent and scale of which I wrote about last year. No one with a working heart can fail to miss the injustice in, for example, the case of the college-bound kid who was carted off to prison for ten years, against all the wisdom of the presiding judge, crying for his mother, for simply having been found in a car with drugs inside. And such stories were commonplace. They had to be. As I wrote last year, there are more African-American men now incarcerated in America than were held in slavery in 1861, and more Americans under “judicial control” of one kind or another than Stalin held in his Gulag.
But even if this is the first decisive small stone pitched against a national shame, its specific effect on the imprisoned will still be minimal. Most prosecutions are not federal, no one now in prison will be released, and the careful hedge of politic exceptions—no mercy for drug gangs, dealers, etc.—is bound to create many complications. As so often, though, the critics, I suspect, both underestimate the difficulty of big change and the geometric, multiplier effect of small ones.