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January 20, 2009

Inaugural rhetoric about freedom and liberty in prison nation

I am about to sign off to go watch the inauguration activities on television, but I feel obliged to first remind everyone that soaring inaugural rhetoric does not necessarily translate into improved practical realities.  And I stress this point with a particular focus on our leaders' tendency to talk big about freedom and liberty in America, even while the United States continues to be a world leader in incarceration rates and extreme terms of imprisonment.

Against this backdrop, it bears noting that out-going President Bush started his second term with an Inaugural Address in 2005 that mentioned freedom 27 times and mentioned liberty 15 times.  Included in that 2005 speech were the inspiring assertions that "The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world" and "In the long run, there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty."  Yet despite that rhetoric, during his second term in office, President Bush presided over the continued expansion of the number of persons with their freedom and liberty by their confinement in federal and state prison and jail facilities.  And, stunningly, perhaps the only form of executive power that President Bush did not use aggressively was his clemency power, which the Framers fully expected and wanted Presidents to use to enhance the freedom of offenders who no longer needed to have their liberty severely restricted.

For these reasons, though I will be listening for references to freedom and liberty in President-elect Barack Obama's speech today, I care a lot more about his actions to expand human liberty and freedom int he days ahead.  In particular, I am hoping (though not really expecting) that the new President will have the courage to take at least a few symbolic steps during his first 100 days to highlight that he understands it is both an embarrassment and disgrace that a nation "conceived in Liberty," as President Lincoln put it at Gettysburg, is now a country that restricts liberty at home more than any other nation on the globe.

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January 20, 2009 at 10:20 AM | Permalink

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Comments

At this point, even the dumbest, most ignorant and unsophisticated of Americans knows that the words "freedom" and "liberty" have big asterisks after them.

Posted by: BruceM | Jan 20, 2009 10:46:02 AM

Amen. Well said.

Posted by: Observer | Jan 20, 2009 1:01:22 PM

But (I'm a lowly law student so take my comment with a grain of salt), Prof Berman, I can seemingly reconcile speeches about freedom and liberty with high incarceration rates. Isn't there an idea that an American starts with a certain level of inherent liberty and freedom, but that person can make choices that eliminate rights (voting), freeze freedoms (parole), and just basically close doors (felons in an employment context)? So, basically, I'm asking--is the freedom and justice that Bush and Obama--and political leaders in general--have spoken of really incompatible with incapacitation? Not that I'm saying that we don't need prison reform--don't get me wrong there--but perhaps freedom and liberty might just not be for all, all.

Posted by: Gov'tGirl | Jan 23, 2009 4:12:52 PM

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