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May 12, 2009

Revised discussion of criminal justice plans on White House website

Though perhaps this is old news, I just noticed that the discussion of criminal justice issues has changed over at the Civil Rights webpage on WhiteHouse.gov.  As detailed in this old post, this webpage used to take a bullet-point approach to describing agenda items, and the key bullet points were "Reduce Crime Recidivism by Providing Ex-Offender Support"; "Eliminate Sentencing Disparities"; "Expand Use of Drug Courts."  Now this page has just this paragraph with a single heading:

Lead Criminal Justice Reform

The President will lead the fight to build a more fair and equitable criminal justice system.  He will seek to strengthen federal hate crime legislation and will work to ensure that federal law enforcement agencies do not resort to racial profiling.  He supports funding for drug courts, giving first-time, non-violent offenders a chance to serve their sentence, if appropriate, in drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than prison terms in changing behavior. President Obama will also improve ex-offender employment and job retention strategies, substance abuse treatment, and mental health counseling so ex-offenders can successfully re-join society.

I am not sure the changed text suggests any formal changes in policy plans.  However, the prior text stated expressly that President Obama and VP Biden favored completely eliminating the crack/powder sentencing disparity.  It is somewhat peculiar that the crack/powder discussion has now itself been completely eliminated from WhiteHouse.gov even though Obama's Justice Department has now urged Congress to completely eliminate the crack/powder disparity.

Meanwhile, I cannot help but use this opportunity to spotlight, yet again, that President Obama has completely failed to make any use of his clemency power, even though a few strategic clemency grants would present an especially effective means to show he was genuinely committed to "lead[ing] the fight to build a more fair and equitable criminal justice system" and to "giving first-time, non-violent offenders a chance" to avoid excessive and ineffectual prison terms.  I stress this point again and again because, though President Obama has been very active in his first 100+ days on so many other issues, when it comes to hope and change for the federal criminal justice system, he can and should be assailed for being all talk and little action.

Some old and new related posts:

May 12, 2009 at 08:02 AM | Permalink

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I cannot help but use this opportunity to spotlight, yet again, that President Obama has completely failed to make any use of his clemency power, even though a few strategic clemency grants would present an especially effective means to show he was genuinely committed to "lead[ing] the fight to build a more fair and equitable criminal justice system" and to "giving first-time, non-violent offenders a chance" to avoid excessive and ineffectual prison terms

So...the complaint is not that there are some deserving petitions in the pipeline, but that a symbolic gesture you'd like to see hasn't been made?

Why not just wait for his actual substantive policies?

Posted by: anonymous | May 12, 2009 9:28:41 AM

There are probably, anonymous, hundreds if not thousands of deserving petitions in the pipelines. Moreover, as some of GWB's most notable clemencies highlighted --- namely of Scooter Libby and the Border Agents --- a Prezz does not need to wait (and I do not think he should alwasy wait) for a case to go through "the pipeline" before using his constitutional authority to do justice.

If you review the linked posts, you will see plenty of references to cases that I consider "deserving." Indeed, that is one of the reasons I am so grumpy about all the nice talk without any real action: there are so many cases in which Prez Obama could (should) use his clemency power without stirring up any real controversy.

Posted by: Doug B. | May 12, 2009 10:27:33 AM

Doug, what in Obama's past makes you believe for a second that he is going to risk his presidency on releasing a bunch of criminals? Let's say one of these turkeys commits a crime like that visited on Esme Kennedy? What then?

Obama has a soft spot for criminals. There's no doubt about that, see, e.g., his remarks on Jena, but he also has few principles he's willing to die on a hill for. He's going to help criminals with his judicial appointments and by nudging Congress.

Posted by: federalist | May 12, 2009 11:38:03 AM

federalist, do you think GWB "risked" his presidency by releasing Scooter Libby and the Border Agents? Are you fearful that those "turkeys" will soon commit a terrible crime?

It seems, federalist, that you eagerly want to believe that every one of the 200,000+ federal prisoners are just waiting to come after your women and children, but in fact a lot of those folks want nothing more than to just go home to their own women and children. (And, of course, some of them are women themselves.)

Posted by: Doug B. | May 12, 2009 12:24:14 PM

Doug, it is worth noting that by the time GWB gave clemency to Libby and the border agents, his political career was all but over. You could probably find hundreds, or even thousands of applicants who were more deserving than Libby, whose petitions were ignored because they didn't have the advantage of being the VP's crony.

Although clemency is obviously beneficial to the recipients, politically it buys the president practically nothing. It's not because Libby or the border agents are ongoing dangers to society, but because of the perception that they received a favor that is not available to most offenders.

There aren't many Bush precedents that will endure, but this could very well be one of them. Obama has probably reached the same conclusion Bush did: he has nothing to gain by using his clemency power liberally.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | May 12, 2009 1:19:04 PM

Doug, first of all, I have repeatedly stated that clemency is a valuable tool to help ensure that the scarce resource of prison beds are put to their highest and best use. I have praised Governor Ehrlich's clemency program. I have no problems with clemency exercised judiciously. To the extent your post suggests otherwise, you are being disingenuous.

Second of all, Libby and the border agents are obviously low-risk, and Bush granted clemency late in his second term. Accordingly, I am baffled by your question--isn;t it obvious that he did not.

Third of all, while I get that you are calling on Obama to show a little love by doing some clemency, the reality is that you want clemency for the hundreds/thousands of "deserving" prisoners. Well, there are going to be public safety issues with releasing that many criminals. (Apparently, using the word "turkeys" to describe convicted criminals is offensive to you. Sorry about that.) And you implicitly acknowledge that when saying that "a lot of them" want to go home. Some of them, though, will commit crime, and that's what I am concerned about. And I think that any fair reading of my numerous posts on the subject would show that I don't believe that "every one of the 200,000 plus" want to come after my kids. I look at this as simple risk allocation. Yeah, a lot of these people have learned their lessons and could rejoin society. But what about those who don't? Am I a big meanie because I want to err on the side of protecting innocent people?

Fourth, you don't even address my post. Obama clearly has a soft spot for criminals. Yet even he knows that releasing all or a significant portion of the "deserving" criminals could cause a political problem. Obama is not a man of principle.

Posted by: federalist | May 12, 2009 1:41:22 PM

And by the way, Doug, perhaps this escapes you, but I care about people other than my own kids. It's less likely that my kids would suffer at the hands of some hypothetical criminal than it would be for some low-income family forced to live near all these victims of a meanie justice system suddenly loosed upon society.

Perhaps, just perhaps, Doug, you could look at things from that perspective. Many many people thought Giuliani a big big meanie. But there are a lot of people alive today that would not be had his policies not been put in place.

Posted by: federalist | May 12, 2009 1:57:14 PM

federalist, your engagement is always appreciated, but your "meanie" mania is getting tiring, especially because you seem more eager to pick fights rather than note points of conensus. So, let me try to spotlight our many agreements:

1. You say you "have no problems with clemency exercised judiciously" and that "that clemency is a valuable tool to help ensure that the scarce resource of prison beds are put to their highest and best use." I agree 100% and that's why I keep lamenting that Obama is yet to use his clemency judiciously (despite doing so much else in his first 100+ days) and also why I suggest some judicious clemencies would save our collective tax dollars and other scarce resources.

2. I also agree that Prez Obama --- like all effective politicians --- tends to focus more on what's popular than what's principled. Indeed, that is what a functioning democracy essentially demands of its elected politicians. But that is exactly why I think it is so important for those whose jobs do not turn on popularity (like mine and yours) to press elected leaders to consider being attentive to principle as well as popular concerns.

3. I also agree that Libby and the border agents are "obviously low-risk," and my point was that there are surely more than a few more such obviously low-risk offenders in federal prison. Indeed, even if we assume 99.9% are not low risk --- which seems unlikely since only about 10% of federal prisoners are incarcerated for a violent offense --- we'd still have 2000+ low-risk folks among the 200,000+ in federal prison.

4. I also want to "err on the side of protecting innocent people," which is the main reason I want to get tougher on drunk drivers and others who create persistent risks of death to my kids and your kids and others' kids.

5. I have no problem calling all convicted criminals "turkeys" or "meanies" or whatever terminology you like. I am never really troubled by terms, so do not worry about being PC (which really never seems to be your worry). Indeed, I like using strong words to get people's attention, though I think it is more effective when these words describe a reality that folks like avoid confronting. That's why I talk about imprisonment in terms of "locking people in cages." Notably, a lot of other commentors like to use harsh words in the comments, and I am happy to have them hear as long as they try to treat fellow participants with respect.

Posted by: Doug B. | May 12, 2009 9:22:36 PM

Doug, youre pivoting. You strongly implied that I have a completely penurious attitude when it comes to clemency. I do not, as numerous posts in here show. Admit that.

"Violent offense" may not be what they're in for, but it may be what got the attention of the feds. Or they may be serious drug dealers . . . .

As for "meanie", Doug, come on, you cannot be that obtuse. You wrote, "[federalist] eagerly want[s]to believe that every one of the 200,000+ federal prisoners are just waiting to come after your women and children". I am paraphrasing (and belittling) that line of attack as calling me a big meanie. Do you think I'm wrong?

As for "low-risk", isn't the key identifying them? Yeah, there may well be 2000 people incarcerated in federal prisons who have not committed heinous crimes and who are low-risk, but figuring out which ones ain't so easy.

As for "locking people in cages", you cannot seriously defend that as "describing a reality". It's sophistry.

You like using strong words-so do I, but I think there's a fundamental difference between my posts and yours. When I use strong words, I either use them for something solely in the realm of opinion or I have a pretty strong argument. You lead with your chin. I don't think any honest person in here would conclude that I don't get the better of you. And the reason I get the better of you is because your language is ill-chosen, and I am a pretty smart guy.

On an earlier post (about the woman incarcerated for texting) you mentioned a constitutional issue because the judge used a summary proceeding to hold a woman in contempt. I asked you what constitutional issues, and no response. That's fine, of course, but I'll re-ask the question, "what constitutional issues arise from a summary contempt proceeding that results in incarceration less than 180 days"? I get that the First Amendment issue is colorable, but that has nothing to do with the "summary" nature of the proceedings.

Once again, leading with the chin.

Posted by: federalist | May 12, 2009 11:04:15 PM

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