Sentencing

What Obama Can Do Right Now to End Outrageous Prison Sentences

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In a moving front-page story about sentencing reform, New York Times reporter John Tierney highlights the heartbreaking case of Stephanie George, a single mother of three who received a life sentence without parole in 1997 because her boyfriend stashed half a kilogram of cocaine in her Pensacola, Florida, home. That offense, together with earlier convictions for a couple of small-time crack sales, triggered a mandatory sentence that U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson, in a sadly familiar ritual, declared unjust as he was imposing it. "Even though you have been involved in drugs and drug dealing," Vinson told George, "your role has basically been as a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder but not actively involved in the drug dealing, so certainly in my judgment it does not warrant a life sentence." Today Vinson tells Tierney:

She was not a major participant by any means, but the problem in these cases is that the people who can offer the most help to the government are the most culpable. So they get reduced sentences while the small fry, the little workers who don't have that information, get the mandatory sentences.

The punishment is supposed to fit the crime, but when a legislative body says this is going to be the sentence no matter what other factors there are, that's draconian in every sense of the word. Mandatory sentences breed injustice.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums, of course, has been making these arguments for more than two decades, but Tierney notes that they are finding an increasingly receptive audience among conservatives having second thoughts about the cost-effectiveness of mass incarceration and legislators facing tight budgets with less room for the wasteful spending reflected in numbers like these:

Half a million people are now in prison or jail for drug offenses, about 10 times the number in 1980, and there have been especially sharp increases in incarceration rates for women and for people over 55, long past the peak age for violent crime. In all, about 1.3 million people, more than half of those behind bars, are in prison or jail for nonviolent offenses.

A combination of fiscal and moral arguments has led to sentencing reform at the federal level (shorter crack sentences) and in states such as New York, Texas, Kentucky, and California. But much more needs to be done in those places and elsewhere, and any reform that is not retroactive cannot help prisoners like Stephanie George. "At this point," Tierney reports, "lawyers say her only hope seems to be presidential clemency—rarely granted in recent years."

That's an understatement. As an Illinois state legislator in 2001, Barack Obama declared, "We can't continue to incarcerate ourselves out of the drug crisis." As a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007, he lamented that "we now have 2 million people who are locked up…far the largest prison population per capita of any place on earth." He worried that "there does seem to be a racial component to some of the arrest, conviction, prosecution rates when it comes to these [drug] offenses," saying skewed criminal penalties are "not a black or white issue" but "an American issue," since "our basic precept is equality under the law." The following year, Obama's campaign said he believes "we are sending far too many first-time, nonviolent drug users to prison for very long periods of time, and that we should rethink those laws." It promised he "will review drug sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the blind and counterproductive sentencing of non-violent offenders, and revisit instances where drug rehabilitation may be more appropriate."

Yet as president, Obama has granted exactly one commutation so far. This allegedly progressive and enlightened man has been far stingier with pardons and commutations than any of his four most recent predecessors, which is saying something. Now that Obama has been safely re-elected, he has no excuse for failing to use his unilateral, unreviewable power to make our criminal justice system a bit less egregiously unfair.

For more on the costs of mass incarceration, see the "Criminal Injustice" package in the July 2011 issue of Reason. Back in 1999, I explained how John DiIulio, one of the tough-on-crime social scientists whose criticism of mandatory sentences Tierney cites, went from "Let 'Em Rot" to "Let 'Em Go." For more on how Obama disappointed drug policy reformers, see my October 2011 cover story.

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  1. Obama’s too busy campaigning. It’s much more important that we raise taxes on the wealthy than fight injustice. And he’s still pardoned more turkeys than people this year, I’m pretty sure.

    1. It’s much more important that we raise taxes on the wealthy than fight injustice.

      Wealth inequality is injustice!

  2. How else will people be deterred from crime if sentences are not harsh?

    I’m told that in places like Saudi Arabia you could leave a stack of money on your desk and no one would touch it, and it’s all due to harsh penalties!

    If anything, penalties are too soft!

    1. See, people don’t appreciate the threat of punishment, because most people are never truly punished. So we should whip and incarcerate everyone prior to their 18th birthdays.

  3. Obama hates black people.

    1. And Michelle doesn’t want him putting fatties back on the streets.

  4. Don’t you see, it’s not Obama’s fault. He inherited these bad laws from previous administrations. And he can’t grant clemency because he would get called soft on crime, which would endanger his chances of being re-elected…uh, I mean, endanger Joe Biden’s chances of election.

  5. First, though, he’s going to have to find that engineer a job and help out all those Hurricane Sandy victims

  6. It’s very curious to me how anyone can think the president has any moral authority whatsoever until he commutes the sentences of every single person in prison for a nonviolent drug or drug-related offense. A president really does have the power to do a vast amount of good in this way (and in very few others). And this is the real most horrible thing about Obama (and of course he’s not alone).

    1. Why worry about moral authority when you can settle for legal authority?

      1. Why worry about legal authority when you control a virtual monopoly on force?

    2. All presidents are evil. Because they haven’t done exactly what you just said. I don’t care about excuses about re-election or whatever; they have the absolute power to free people unjustly imprisoned and none of them have used it. Except Clinton, of course; his pardon of Marc Rich was the height of civil libertarianism.

      1. If nothing else, why not do these things at the end of your second term?

        1. Probably because they couldn’t give the tiniest shit about actual justice.

          1. And finally, monsieur, a wafer-thin slice of justice.

            1. Oh, if only the fate of bloated government was the same as that guy.

      2. All presidents are evil. Because they haven’t done exactly what you just said.

        Yes, precisely.

        I don’t care about excuses about re-election or whatever; they have the absolute power to free people unjustly imprisoned and none of them have used it.

        Also this, precisely. I really can’t think of anything that would be more important and “worth saving the political capital for” or whatever. Complete BS.

      3. Unjustly imprisoned? What does that mean? If they were convicted then they were justly imprisoned. Oh, you mean the law is unjust? Oh, that’s silly. All laws are just by virtue of the good intentions and hard work that goes into creating them. We’re law makers, not law repealers.

        /average politician

  7. If we let all these people out of prison, the guards will lose their jobs and their children will go hungry. Think of the children!

  8. But BOOOOSH never did anything to end outrageous prison sentences!!

    1. You know he’s just sitting around congratulating himself on everyone accepting the new paradigm that he created. His only mistake, apparently, was not being a minority and a Democrat. Otherwise, everything he did was groovy.

      1. It’s Dubya’s world, we’re just living in it (until the drones find us).

  9. Now that Obama has been safely re-elected, he has no excuse for failing to use his unilateral, unreviewable power to make our criminal justice system a bit less egregiously unfair.

    Because fuck you, that’s why. Your mistake is in believing that we can better judge someone by what they say rather than what they do, that words speak louder than actions.

  10. My mom’s close friend’s son just got sentenced to 4 years for selling weed, in Colorado of all places. So much for seeing his infant child in his formative years. Not surprisingly she is finally coming around to my view of things. Too bad for most people it has to hit someone close to them before they come to that realization.

  11. He can’t be painted soft on drugs, or the evul white conservatives would vote ruthuglicans into the senate during the midterms!

    Keeping these people in jail is a small price to pay for keeping rethuglicans out of office!

  12. Many people do not know that we have many non-violent, marijuana only, Federal offenders serving sentences of Life Without Parole for selling marijuana. It is fiscally irresponsible and must end. 48% of federal inmates are incarcerated for drugs. This war on drugs and people costs billions. http://www.lifeforpot.com

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