MSNBC Panelist: 'Over-incarceration ... Is the Single Worst Problem Black People Have'

By Melanie Arter | March 3, 2014 | 7:19 PM EST

Baltimore City Detention Center  (AP Photo)

( - Baltimore criminal defense attorney William H. Murphy, Jr., in a panel discussion on MSNBC's "Melissa Harris-Perry" on Sunday, called over-incarceration "the single worst problem black people have."

"Overincarceration ... is the single worst problem black people have to rebuild families, to educate children, to make sure that everyone is as productive as a human being is capable of being in a society of otherwise great opportunity," said Murphy, a former judge.

In December 2013, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of eight drug offenders who were serving sentences that the president said were too harsh. He signed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 to cut the penalties for crack cocaine offenses to reduce the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine possession.

In August 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder told the American Bar Association in San Francisco that he favors sending low-level drug offenders to drug treatment and community service programs, and expanding a prison program that will allow elderly, non-violent offenders to be released early.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), also a supporter of eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders, met recently with Holder to discuss the issue.

"We've got to stop this overincarceration as quickly as possible if we're going to put black people back on the road to productivity," Murphy said, adding that he's enthusiastic, but skeptical about sentencing reforms, because it will be met with "overwhelming" resistance on the ground.

"Prosecutors are already up in arms about it. They're emotionally invested in the old way of doing businesss. They're used to sending people to jail for long periods of time and not giving a damn. Judges are in the same position. They're used to the system," Murphy said.

"There have only been a minority of judges who protested against the existing regime, and so I don't anticipate there's going to be quick change. That's why Obama's appointment of judges is a very critical step in bringing all of this to being, and Republicans are now trying to sabotage his efforts to fill all of the vacancies in the federal system," Murphy added.