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January 26, 2014

Will Prez Obama mention sentencing reform in the State of the Union address?

Presidents traditionally use the annual State of the Union address to outline a planned legislative agenda and to articulate a perspective on national priorities. Consequently, in light of all the recent talk from Attorney General Holder and members of Congress about the need for federal sentencing reform, I will be extremely interested to see what Prez Obama might say (or not say) about sentencing reform when speaking to Congress this Tuesday.

This notable new commentary by Juliet Sorensen at The Atlantic, which is headlined "Why Obama Should Back Drug-Sentencing Reform in the State of the Union," highlights that I am not the only one now thinking about POTUS, SOTU and sentencing.  Here are excerpts:

In the last week of 1963, my father, Ted Sorensen, met with President Lyndon Johnson late into the night at his Texas ranch to decide what provisions of President John F. Kennedy’s unfinished agenda to include in the upcoming State of the Union address.  Last on the list was a provision for expanded federal jurisdiction over illegal drugs, which provided not only for federal criminal-law enforcement but also for expanded rehabilitation and treatment programs.

As my father recounted in his memoir, Johnson angrily brushed aside the suggestion. “Drugs? I don’t want to have anything to do with them. Just lock them up and throw away the key!”  The meeting ended, and my father deleted that portion of the speech, which famously announced the War on Poverty — but kept the drug provision in Johnson’s legislative program. This led to controlled-substance and drug-addiction reform that passed with bipartisan support in Congress. Despite Johnson’s dismissal of my father’s proposal of treatment and rehabilitation, he extolled those ideas when he signed the Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act into law in November 1966, describing it as a “pioneering measure” that recognizes that “treating addicts as criminals neither curtails addiction nor prevents crime.”

President Obama now has a golden opportunity in his own State of the Union to confront the U.S. government’s continued struggle to effectively legislate drugs.  In a January 8 statement, Obama endorsed the very same priorities articulated in LBJ’s War on Poverty and catalogued exactly 50 years ago in Johnson’s own State of the Union address.  This indicates that he will also focus on income inequality — 21st century lingo for entrenched poverty — in his speech on January 28.  While a renewed commitment to tackling persistent poverty is laudable, Obama should also seize the moment to further another, related legislative aim of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations: reduced sentencing for drug-law violators who are nonviolent offenders....

Members of the bench and bar have come to recognize that mandatory minimums don’t always keep society safe or effectively punish every defendant.  A bill in the Senate, co-sponsored by Senators Dick Durbin, a Democrat, and Mike Lee, a Republican, would capitalize on shifting opinions in Congress and the general public.  The Smarter Sentencing Act (SSA) would reduce the mandatory-minimum penalties for many drug offenses and give federal judges more leeway to sentence nonviolent offenders with limited criminal histories below the high mandatory-minimum sentences.  It would also reduce disparities between crack- and powder-cocaine offenders by making the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the gap between the amount of crack and powder cocaine needed to trigger certain penalties, retroactive.  Support for the SSA from law enforcement, victims’ organizations, prosecutors, and judges has poured in, including a letter signed by more than 100 former judges and prosecutors, including me....

The Obama Administration has indicated it supports mandatory-minimum-sentencing reform.  Tellingly, the president last month commuted the sentences of eight nonviolent drug offenders who would most likely have received significantly shorter terms if they had been sentenced under current drug laws, sentencing rules, and charging policies.  Attorney General Eric Holder stated last August that legislation such as the SSA will “ultimately save our country billions of dollars while keeping us safe.”  In an interview published in this week’s issue of The New Yorker, Obama acknowledged the disparate impact of drug laws on minorities, noting that “African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support” — in their families, in their schools, and in their communities — to avoid lengthy prison sentences for marijuana crimes, even as he acknowledged the “profound” social costs of drug trafficking.

A declaration of support for the SSA in his State of the Union Address — broadcast live and heard not only by Congress but approximately 50 million people around the world — would go far to create momentum and support for the bill and its goal of curbing unnecessarily harsh sentencing. In so doing, the president would put America back on the road paved by Kennedy and Johnson. My father, and the presidents he served, would be pleased.

January 26, 2014 at 08:02 AM | Permalink

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Comments

The President should go further and announce what so many on this forum think (some out loud and some under the subterfuge of sentencing reduction): That all drugs should be legalized.

A strike for "the land of the free," dontcha know.

Really, I hope he does. That way, instead of the modest Republican gains now likely in this year's election, we'll see massive gains, as the country finally wakes up to what liberalism/libertarianism really views as the "American Dream."

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 26, 2014 2:13:23 PM

The President should call for a law of prohibition against tobacco. Make it a felony to smoke in the halls of Congress. You Boehner! Tobacco is the worst drug. It kills millions.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Jan 26, 2014 3:12:12 PM

Liberty1st --

Alcohol and tobacco are ALREADY prohibited to a large segment of the potential market -- roughly the same segment to which heroin and the other drugs you admire will CONTINUE to be prohibited even under the most robust scheme of legalization one can imagine.

You didn't know this?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 26, 2014 8:49:10 PM

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