Wotka World Wide

Monday, October 17, 2011

Barack Obama, Drug Warrior? Yes. His campaign promises about changing that arena of American policy were appparently just hot air, as Jacob Sullum of Reason amply demonstrates:

In retrospect, there were warning signs that Obama would disappoint supporters who expected him to de-escalate the war on drugs, just as he has disappointed those who expected him to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a U.S. senator he bragged about co-sponsoring the Combat Meth Act, which is the reason cold and allergy sufferers throughout the country are treated like potential felons whenever they try to buy decongestants containing pseudoephedrine. He staunchly defended the Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Grant Program, which has fueled the incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders and funded the regional task forces behind racially tinged law enforcement scandals in places such as Tulia, Texas. As New York Times columnist Charles Blow noted last year, this grant program, created at the end of the Reagan administration, “has become the pet project of Democrats” because it’s “an easy and relatively cheap way for them to buy a tough-on-crime badge while simultaneously pleasing police unions.” In 2006 Obama warned that George W. Bush’s attempt to eliminate the Byrne grants (which Obama revived with a $2 billion infusion as part of his 2009 stimulus package) “gives criminals and drug dealers a break by taking cops off the streets.”

Even on an issue that seemed to genuinely trouble him—the sentencing rules for crack cocaine, which treated the smoked form of the drug as if it were 100 times worse than the snorted form—Obama seemed less than fully committed. In 2007 he told a gathering of African-American newspaper columnists in Las Vegas that as president he’d appoint a panel to study crack sentences, which are imposed on defendants who are overwhelmingly black, and issue a report “that allows me to say that based on the expert evidence, this is not working and it’s unfair.” As Boston Globe columnist Derrick Jackson observed at the time, that was a weird thing to say, since the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the panel of experts empowered to decide what penalties are appropriate for federal crimes (within the parameters set by Congress), had repeatedly said crack sentences were irrational and unjust. Obama also wondered whether “we want to spend all our political capital on a very difficult issue that doesn’t get at some of the underlying issues.”

In the event, the Obama administration, to its credit, did support crack sentencing reform, although it’s debatable how much political capital it spent in the process. “Attorney General [Eric] Holder really wanted to see crack reform happen,” says Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, “and I think so did Obama.” The Fair Sentencing Act, which Obama signed into law in August 2010, shrank the 100-to-1 weight ratio dictated by federal law (so that five grams of crack, for example, triggered the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence as 500 grams of cocaine powder), making it 18 to 1 instead—also irrational and unjust, but considerably less so. “That was the best that they could get out of the Congress,” says Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, “and the administration worked for that.” But by the time Obama took office, there was a bipartisan consensus, including conservative Republicans such as Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, and Rep. Dan Lungren of California, that crack penalties were unjustifiably harsh. The Fair Sentencing Act was approved by unanimous consent in the Senate and by a voice vote in the House.
Read the whole thing. Sad that a man with a mandate for change couldn't even be bothered to pardon one unjustly imprisoned non-violent offender.

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