Obama Can Free Thousands of Drug Offenders Who Don't Belong in Prison

Will he?



Today President Obama is visiting a federal prison in Oklahoma as part of his new push for criminal justice reform. In my latest Forbes column, I argue that while Obama cannot solve overincarceration on his own, he could do a lot more than he has done so far:

In 2006 Telisha Watkins helped connect a neighbor in New York City with a cocaine dealer in North Carolina. The neighbor, who turned out to be a confidential informant, had said he was interested in buying 18 ounces of cocaine. Watkins was ultimately charged with participating in a conspiracy involving 285 grams of crack as well as 428 grams of cocaine powder, based on the package her acquaintance in North Carolina delivered and the contents of his van. Because of the crack and three prior convictions for drug possession, Watkins received a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence in 2007, when she was 33.

Thanks to President Obama, Watkins will go free in November, more than nine years before her expected release date. She is one of 46 federal prisoners whose sentences, ranging from 14 years to life, were commuted on Monday. All of them are nonviolent drug offenders, three-quarters of whom were convicted of crack offenses at a time when penalties were substantially more severe than they are now. There are thousands more like them in federal prisons, and Obama has the power to free them all. Whether he will use that power remains to be seen, and time is running out.

Read the whole thing.

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    (in before the wingnuts)

    1. This is the point in an administration the legacy panic sets in.

    2. Her certainly isn’t doing it out of principle.

    3. No, he just happened to wait until he didn’t have to worry about an election to do it. He’s doing the right thing here. But he’s not doing enough, and it’s disgusting that he waited this long to do it.

      1. That pretty much sums it up

    4. No, he avoided doing it until now because he was scared he wouldn’t get votes.

      If Obama does this, that would be a legacy even I could appreciate it. IF is the key word. Color me skeptical until I see action. A few dozen pardons aint it.

  2. The Republicans are really stupid to let the Dems get out front on this issue. It’s the “law and order at all costs/get off my lawn/cops are glorious heroes” set that let this happen. Younger, more libertarian Repubs have been on this issue for many years, way longer than Mr. Obamatunist. The McCains of the party just let it slip through their fingers, and now the Dems control the message.

    1. The first five words of your comment explain it all. They’ve gotten by on the mindless law and order vote for so long it’s overtaken the small government stance they’re supposed to advocate.

    2. To everyone’s apparent surprise, this issue is coming from bipartisan support. Democrats are on the human rights angle and Republicans are on the cost angle, but who cares as long as reform happens. I’m personally giving credit where it’s due, and the first reforms happened in red states like Texas and Georgia.

      1. wholly agreed.

      2. I like the spin you put it on it. The only Dems who have acted on this have done so because of costs, just like in the red states. Nothing significant has happened at the federal level.

        Neither team has cared on this issue, and the left is only looking to play the race bait game.

        If they accomplish something good, I don’t give a shit. But spare me your bullshit on how they care about human rights. ‘Compassionate conservative’ Bush showed more concern than Obama has for people in prison. At least he deigned himself to try and fix real rape culture.

  3. Yeah, as good as it is to see this happening, I can’t help but feel a twinge of uneasiness here.

    My initial concerns:
    1) If this is “an issue too important to ignore,” as Obama is suddenly claiming, why did it take him seven years to get to it?

    2) It seems to me like the Dems are trying to steal the issue from Rand Paul. I suspect because they realize black turnout will already be much lower in 2016 without Barry on the ticket. If any sizable fraction moves to Republicans, it’d be a disaster for them.

    3) Hillary is likely going to try to seize the issue, even though she and her husband are in no small part responsible for the exploding prison population over the last 30 or so years.

    4) Progtards will find a way to ruin this. I’m not sure how just yet, but they always do.

    1. What I don’t understand is why he doesn’t just free all the people in prison incarcerated for mere drug possession. That’s easy and not insanely controversial (not with a majority of citizens, anyway). He could even just do it for the people in for pot, since that’s trending towards legalization.

      I think it’s good that the noose is being loosened a little, and credit to all who are doing so, but what I don’t care much for is this very slight change in a wholesale injustice. I fear that the administration is making a very small gesture to claim credit for something big without actually doing something big–taking the chance of actually pardoning thousands of people.

      1. the administration is making a very small gesture to claim credit for something big without actually doing something big

        Dammit, P L — Starting a national conversation *is* doing something big!

        1. Honestly, could we elect bigger cowards? Can just one of these idiots do something right ahead of the whole country chanting together that it’s okay? This guy is a bigger coward than most, but they all do the same thing–hide behind a column if an action might have political consequences.

          The only risk would be if he pardoned people convicted of violent crimes, too. Easy enough to avoid. The WoD isn’t popular enough to hurt him or his party.

          1. Yeah, that’s why I get so incensed by the whole gay marriage thing. Obama was on record opposing it until 2012, then polls show that greater than 50% of Americans support it, so he not only changes his tune, but immediately castigates anyone who holds the same position he did IN 2012 as modern-day klansmen.

            1. You mean when Obama freed the gays? Yeah, I found that a little sickening, too. Fine to change your mind, but this bullshit about pretending that you’re the focal point of this belief system when you’ve publicly said exactly the opposite for years is obscene. Even worse is that people just act like it’s brave, when it’s the precise opposite.

        2. Except for the fact that Rand Paul started it, and the Dems went non-linear freakout city and said “ERMAHGERD! We can’t let a Republican beat us at this game!!”

          1. Paul has proven surprisingly influential. I hope he makes it to the White House, but if he doesn’t, I think his influence will still grow. What we really need are more like him.

            1. I don’t really expect Paul to win, but my hope is that he’s enough of a threat that the front-runner cuts a deal. I think I would vote for any candidate who promised to make Rand Paul the Attorney General (nevermind that he is “technically” an attorney).

              1. I think I would vote for any candidate who promised to make Rand Paul the Attorney General

                “Hillary Would Make Rand Paul AG, Garners White Man Votes”

                1. That’s so unlikely that it has a negative probability. DOJ is used almost solely for political purposes now. Used to be just mostly.

                  1. Oh, totally unlikely, I know, but I’ve voted libertarian in all three of my presidential elections since turning 18, so realistic isn’t really a prerequisite when I push for something in politics.

      2. My guess is that they want to make sure he’s pardoning people *actually* convicted of nonviolent drug offenses, and not situations where the perp pled down or something.

        But yeah, totally agree that this is a small gesture made to claim credit for a wholesale change.

        1. That’s pretty easy to do, since all of that is public record. If he goes on a pardoning rampage, I’ll applaud (in total shock), but I’m very doubtful he’ll do that without a massive outcry that he do so.

      3. You pretty much hit the nail on the head.

        They are cowards. If one person arrested for possession goes and kills someone or something else stupid and violent (and the rightwing media would be looking for it), you would have a political scandal.

        Better to play it safe and just release a few, and then do what all president’s do and pardon some political cronies near the very end.

  4. There are thousands more like them in federal prisons, and Obama has the power to free them all.

    But he shouldn’t. What needs to happen is for the laws to be changed. I find it odd that Reason would support this “I have a phone and a pen” method of correcting this injustice.

    1. The laws do need to change, but Obama has the Constitutional power to do this. It’s always existed.

      There would be massive uproar over Obama doing it. I personally care more about freeing people locked in cages, even if they all don’t end up being squeaky clean.

    2. No one is denying that the laws need to be changed. The pardon power is explicitly in the Constitution, so it has a little more legitimacy than the “phone and pen” comment.

      Pardoning a few dozen people is a good start, and Obama deserves credit for that, so long as it is a START and not a token gesture so everyone in the media can congratulate him for how transformative he is.

      1. Injustice is injustice. If he pardons thousands who deserve pardoning, well, good, even if (and I’m sure this is the case) his motives are completely unrelated to any sense of justice.

        1. Agreed. “So long as” was a poor choice of words there. I should have said something closer to “but it’d be better if”

  5. Rand Paul could introduce legislation today to legalize MJ. Will he? Nope. As always, Reason looking for Dems to do what the GOP will never do.

  6. Pelosi could introduce legislation today to legalize MJ. Will she? Nope. As always, Reason looking for the GOP to do what the Dems will never do.

    See how easy that is – derp.

  7. “It is the first time a sitting U.S. president has seen the inside of a federal prison.”

    That *is* a tragedy.

  8. Pardon my cynicism (giggle), but I imagine Obama is weighing the political considerations on both sides.

    On the one hand, he knows that many people, black people and white people, even some Republicans, are aware that the criminal justice/incarceration complex has gotten out of control.

    On the other hand, he probably wakes up in a cold sweat at the thought of headlines like “Crack Dealer Released by Obama Kills Man – Grieving Mother Screams “Why? Why?””

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