Holder’s prison reform initiative praised, questioned

By Joe Beck

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder drew a mixed reaction in Northern Virginia on Monday with his announcement that federal prosecutors will ease up on the kinds of charges filed against low-level, non-violent drug offenders.

The policy change, part of a larger prison reform initiative Holder presented before the American Bar Association in San Francisco, is aimed at reducing the number of defendants subject to mandatory minimum sentences. Holder and others blame such sentences for skyrocketing rates of unnecessary incarceration over the last several decades.

Family members and supporters of Charceil Davis Kellam, a Winchester woman sentenced to life imprisonment plus 30 years, welcomed Holder’s decision. Kellam has been serving her sentence at a federal prison in Danbury, Conn. Family members and others have insisted that the sentence she received is wildly out of proportion for what they consider minor drug-related offenses.

A federal jury convicted Kellam in 2007 on three counts of distribution of crack cocaine.

Perry Davis of Berryville, Kellam’s son, said he was unsure whether Holder’s decision will lead to a reduction of his mother’s sentence, “but it’s a step toward something that needs to be addressed.”

“If we had rehabilitation programs in place of incarceration, then the incarceration rate wouldn’t be so high,” Davis said.

The reaction from two area congressmen representing the Northern Shenandoah Valley was much more skeptical.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Vienna, said in an email message that he has long supported reforms aimed at reducing overcrowding and dangerous conditions in prisons. He accused Holder of ignoring important prison reform proposals that have languished for years.

“The attorney general’s comments today represent a newfound interest from this administration in prison reform, after five years of inaction and a poor record on reform, and despite members of Congress from both parties that have privately and publicly urged the attorney general to address this issue,” Wolf said.

Wolf added that he is eager to hear more about Holder’s ideas and urged him to support other “bipartisan solutions to our nation’s prison crisis.”

U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, warned Holder not to bypass his committee or the rest of Congress in reforming the federal prisons.

“Attorney General Holder cannot unilaterally ignore the laws or the limits on his executive powers,” Goodlatte wrote in an email. “While the attorney general has the ability to use prosecutorial discretion in individual cases, that authority does not extend to entire categories of people.”

Larry Yates, a Winchester resident who helped organize a rally earlier this year protesting Charceil Kellam’s sentence, said he had spoken with her Monday and found her “pretty excited” over Holder’s announcement.

Yates said he hoped Holder’s policy change can be made retroactive, which would raise the possibility that Kellam’s sentence may be reduced.

“It sounds very good,” Yates said of the policy change. “There are far too many people in prisons, and we’re spending far too much money imprisoning them.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com