What Obama Can Do Right Now to End Outrageous Prison Sentences


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.