6,741 Reasons to Think Obama Is Not Serious About Criminal Justice Reform

Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann hopes, against experience, that President Obama will say something about "the issue of mass incarceration in America" during tonight's State of the Union address. After all, he has made noises about criminal justice reform in the past, he supported shrinking the irrational sentencing gap between crack and cocaine powder (a reform that was favored by virtually every member of Congress), and... Well, that's pretty much it, although Nadelmann notes some comments in a recent Time interview that recall concerns Obama expressed as a presidential candidate in 2007 about America's overachievement in the field of locking people up:

I don't think it's any secret that we have one of the two or three highest incarceration rates in the world, per capita. I tend to be pretty conservative, pretty law and order, when it comes to violent crime. My attitude is, is that when you rape, murder, assault somebody, that you've made a choice; the society has every right to not only make sure you pay for that crime, but in some cases to disable you from continuing to engage in violent behavior.

But there's a big chunk of that prison population, a great huge chunk of our criminal justice system that is involved in nonviolent crimes. And it is having a disabling effect on communities. Obviously, inner city communities are most obvious, but when you go into rural communities, you see a similar impact. You have entire populations that are rendered incapable of getting a legitimate job because of a prison record. And it gobbles up a huge amount of resources. If you look at state budgets, part of the reason that tuition has been rising in public universities across the country is because more and more resources were going into paying for prisons, and that left less money to provide to colleges and universities.

But this is a complicated problem. One of the incredible transformations in this society that precedes me, but has continued through my presidency, even continued through the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, is this decline in violent crime. And that's something that we want to continue. And so I think we have to figure out what are we doing right to make sure that that downward trend in violence continues, but also are there millions of lives out there that are being destroyed or distorted because we haven't fully thought through our process.

I hope Nadelmann is right that Obama finally will follow through on these fine words about unjust punishment and wasted human potential. The main reason I am skeptical, aside from his almost complete failure to do so thus far, is this: Even though Obama declares that "millions of lives...are being destroyed or distorted" by an excessively punitive criminal justice system, he has used his clemency power to mitigate that destruction less often than any president in American history, with the exceptions of George Washington in his first term (when there weren't many applications lying around) and two presidents who died soon after taking office. This amazingly stingy clemency record, which includes a grand total of one commutation granted out of 6,742 petitions, would be disgraceful for any president. It is especially unconscionable for a reputedly progressive and enlightened man who has repeatedly complained that too many people—"a great huge chunk of our criminal justice system," as he puts it in the Time interview—are going to prison for too long. Unlike many of the powers Obama has tried to claim, from waging war without congressional authorization to executing suspected terrorists without due process, clemency is completely within his constitutional authority. He has plenary power to shorten the sentences of federal inmates—many of whom, by his own account, either do not belong in prison or should have been released long ago. His refusal to do so, even now that he has been safely re-elected, tells me he either lacks the courage of his convictions or has no real convictions on this subject but likes to pretend he does.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    When was the last time the guy did anything that wasn't a personal political advantage, vindictive or a mistake?

  • crashland||

    I got this one.
    Uh, Never.

  • T o n y||

    This goes for almost all of the bitching about Obama that goes on around here: The American president is quite weak as a driver of legislation relative to similar positions in other governments. Criminal justice reform has to come from Congress. Congress is powerful, but Congress is corrupt (mostly by the breaking down of barriers between money and public service) and incapable of doing things for the most part. Bitching that Obama hasn't pardoned more nonviolent offenders is silly. You're libertarians; you shouldn't be advocating for the president to exercise his one monarchical power. In fact you should stop treating the president as the source of all your woes and start realizing that pretty much all the policy power in this country resides with Congress. So at some point you're going to either have to stop licking your lips in pleasure at the sight of Congress doing nothing and being pointless, or stop bitching about stuff.

  • Jordan||

    You're libertarians; you shouldn't be advocating for the president to exercise his one monarchical power.

    Nope. Democracy is a means, not an end. Liberty is the end.

    The American president is quite weak as a driver of legislation relative to similar positions in other governments.

    Obama could accomplish plenty with the powers given to him. He has done jack shit, and you know it.

    So at some point you're going to either have to stop licking your lips in pleasure at the sight of Congress doing nothing and being pointless, or stop bitching about stuff.

    No, actually we aren't. But thanks for trying to shut down debate as usual.

  • T o n y||

    You'd of course never try to shut down debate by calling any of the two or three liberals who post here trolls and otherwise trying to bully them out of the club.

    Besides mass pardons, what can Obama do to reform criminal justice? Not that mass pardons would do that...

  • Jordan||

    You'd of course never try to shut down debate by calling any of the two or three liberals who post here trolls and otherwise trying to bully them out of the club.

    I'm one of the few who generally responds to you, even though you are perpetually dishonest.

    Besides mass pardons, what can Obama do to reform criminal justice? Not that mass pardons would do that...

    End medical marijuana raids. Let's start there.

  • T o n y||

    How about let's start with changing federal law regarding marijuana operations so that the executive is not compelled to follow it. Or should the president be able to pick and choose which laws he executes?

  • Jordan||

    How about let's start with changing federal law regarding marijuana operations so that the executive is not compelled to follow it.

    The DEA can change the scheduling of marijuana anytime it wishes. No law changes needed. Fuck your God Emperor.

  • ||

    I'm with Tony on this one. The Executive branch shouldn't get to decide what they enforce. It's shitty, but we're never going to change unjust laws unless we see their full consequences come to bear.

  • Jordan||

    Drug scheduling is determined by the DEA, not Congress.

  • ||

    Then they should reschedule it, so long as that does not conflict with legislation on the growth and sale of marijuana.

  • T o n y||

    That would be a good step to take we can all agree on.

  • crashland||

    How is freeing people from an unjust prison sentence not pro-liberty?

    No amount of disdain, disrespect and hate is too much for Barry. If we had a real press, holding these twats accountable, there'd prolly be less hate spewed at him, but frustration levels build when we are surrounded by lying sycophants.

    Congress doing nothing is better than Congress doing anything. They fuck up everything they touch.

  • T o n y||

    How is the exercise of unilateral executive authority in direct contradiction to the outcome of criminal due process pro-liberty? You expect Obama or any president to exercise this power with respect to nonviolent domestic offenders but not suspected terrorists abroad? Do you also want to have your cake and eat it?

    Congress does tend to fuck things up, but there are institutional reasons for this. And every single policy responsible for making Congress a morass of dysfunction has been championed by libertarians, if not outright invented by them. All those relaxations of rules discouraging money influencing politicians. You think the private prison industry and its lobby don't have their hands all over this? You think alcohol, tobacco, and other lobbies aren't invested in keeping cannabis illegal? If legislators could be legislators instead of agents of private power--a situation libertarians have promoted at every turn--we might actually be able to get some sane policy out of them.

  • Calidissident||

    Yes, Tony, the War on Drugs is all the fault of the corporations and their libertarian enablers. We all know if only their were limits on campaign donations that legislators would be selfless, pure, benevolent guardians untainted by outside influence. I can't believe anyone with an IQ greater than 50 falls for that crap

  • T o n y||

    It couldn't hurt.

  • Jordan||

    How is the exercise of unilateral executive authority in direct contradiction to the outcome of criminal due process pro-liberty?

    Because the outcome of criminal due process was unjust.

    You expect Obama or any president to exercise this power with respect to nonviolent domestic offenders but not suspected terrorists abroad?

    Herp derp. Killing someone is clearly equivalent to freeing them from prison.

    If legislators could be legislators instead of agents of private power--a situation libertarians have promoted at every turn--we might actually be able to get some sane policy out of them.

    Wrong. As long as the state has the powers you advocate for, the rich will manipulate it to their own ends. Incentives matter. I'm sorry that you find the 1st Amendment inconvenient in your pursuit of the Total State.

  • T o n y||

    The state will always have the power to make laws. That's its job. If the state is not making laws, then private entities are making their own laws, and you and I wouldn't even get a vote on the matter. So clearly the solution is not transferring power from the state to rich interests (who would get what they want anyway without the middleman), but to create barriers between the legislators an the private interests. Ideally the interest group Congress should be responding to is "the people" and not "campaign donating lobbies."

  • DEATFBIRSECIA||

    My friend pointed out something to me that hit me like a ton of bricks, even though it should have been obvious:

    We have an entire branch of government whose sole purpose is to create legislation.

    Literally every unavoidable tragedy, every perceived shortcoming in society is viewed as another opportunity to add to the mountain of legislation in order to "do something". It's a problem I'm not sure anyone has a way to solve.

  • Jordan||

    Yeah, the Constitution was supposed to prevent that through institutional limits on what kinds of laws they could pass. That obviously failed. They should have made it more difficult to pass laws. For example, require a supermajority and limit the amount of time Congress can be in session. Ultimately, we're probably doomed no matter what, though.

  • T o n y||

    That would also make it very difficult to repeal bad policy.

  • Jordan||

    Sunset clauses.

  • T o n y||

    And the new laws keep piling on. What scares me is that if you guys got in charge, not only would you have to legislate just as much as anyone else to get what you want, your inherent distrust in government as an institution would make you very, very bad at it.

  • Jordan||

    What scares me is that if you guys got in charge, not only would you have to legislate just as much as anyone else to get what you want

    False. Libertarians don't need an 80,000 page Federal Register and 80,000 page tax code.

  • Jordan||

    your inherent distrust in government as an institution would make you very, very bad at it.

    LOL. Your slavish devotion to government has worked out so well for us.

  • T o n y||

    All of the major problems of the past generation can be laid squarely at the feet of antigovernment conservatives and their time in office. Because antigovernment people are bad at governing. That's why they shouldn't.

  • ||

    I dunno, Venezuela has plenty of pro-government people, including a Planning and Finance minister... who devalued the bolívar almost 50% vs. the USD. Because they're so good at governing.

  • crashland||

    Toss out all of the federal code every 50 years and make them start over again.

  • Jordan||

    Oh yeah, that too. And require every law be renewed every 5 years or so.

  • ||

    That's how we end up with constant debates over tax policy. Providing a predictable, stable framework for people to operate in is an important function for government, and constant sunset provisions make that very difficult.

  • Jordan||

    Liberty stability. Make it hard enough to pass laws, and hopefully there won't be much of a tax code anyway.

  • Jordan||

    Er, "liberty much greater than stability". The squirrels ate my signs.

  • ||

    I agree that liberty is a more important goal, but I think that stability of the legal environment is a good way to promote liberty. Scrapping laws after five years and trying again doesn't sent the message that laws infringe on your (legal) rights; it sends the message that your (legal) rights are nothing more than the whims of the legislature and are subject to change in the next go-around.

  • Jordan||

    it sends the message that your (legal) rights are nothing more than the whims of the legislature and are subject to change in the next go-around.

    Not really, as long as there's a Constitution. In theory, anyway. In practice, our rights are already subject to change at the legislature's whim...

  • crashland||

    We create the position of Congressional Reader. This position is filled by randomly choosing someone from among those citizens too stupid to get out of jury duty. This helps ensure that they are of average intelligence.

    The Reader's job is to read each piece of legislation and then write down what it means. What the Reader writes is what becomes law. If they don't understand something, out it goes. Their translation must be hand written. They can work no more than 8 hours per day, 5 days per week. They also get June, July and December off.

    This limits what can be passed into law and helps to be sure that any average american can read and understand the laws under which they must live.

  • Lincoln||

    Consider this, 500,000 NEW people incarcerated annually (for nonviolent drug offenses, state and federal only, avg.) with the average life expectancy in the U.S. being 78.5 yrs calculates out to. . . .6,369 lives lost to prohibition annually at the hands of our own government.

    This being a conservative estimate since a MINIMUM of one year incarceration is generally required to make it into state or federal prisons and these numbers do not even count local and county incarceration.

    So, what it really boils down to is that drug policy wastes/disregards/kills more human potential domestically than terrorism or malicious gun violence combined when we consider just how conservative the above numbers are . . . and is directly related to our daily shrinking recognition of natural rights and liberties, which further suppresses human potential.

    But hey, what the hell, let's pass some more 'security' laws until you have to ask the government for a permit to wipe your ass. Maybe you'll feel safer then, yes?

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