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January 20, 2015

Hoping for (but not expecting) some mention of sentencing reform in 2015 State of the Union

For criminal justice and especially sentencing fans, the most notable aspects of President Obama's State of the Union addresses have been the absence of any discussion of anything having to do with sentencing or criminal justice.  Notably, the Obama era SOTU silence on sentencing issues contrasts with President George Bush's discussion of reentry and capital defense in his 2004 and 2005 SOTU speeches.  

Calling America "the land of second chance," President Bush in his 2004 State of the Union Address spotlighted prisoner re-entry issues and proposed "a four-year, $300 million prisoner re-entry initiative to expand job training and placement services, to provide transitional housing, and to help newly released prisoners get mentoring, including from faith-based groups."  And asserting that in America "we must make doubly sure no person is held to account for a crime he or she did not commit," President Bush in his 2005 State of the Union Address said he was going to send "to Congress a proposal to fund special training for defense counsel in capital cases, because people on trial for their lives must have competent lawyers by their side." 

I am expecting that President Obama in his 2015 State of the Union Address scheduled for tonight may finally say something about criminal justice issues, in part because I think he will want to say something about race and policing issues in the wake of Ferguson and his creation of a Task Force on 21st Century Policing.  But, as the title of this post reveals, I am not really expecting to hear tonight any discussion of sentencing law and policy  issues even though many in Congress and throughout the nation are concerned about the modern status quo and prospects for federal reforms.

On this front, Andrew Cohen at The Marshall project put together this terrific new piece headlined "‘My Fellow Americans …’: Reimagining the president's State of the Union speech," in which he got "a group of people who think deeply and regularly about criminal justice to share what they would like President Obama to say."   I was honored to be one of the people who Andrew Cohen asked to share my thoughts, though I find most notable what Senator Patrick Leahy, (D-Vt.) had to say:

The biggest issue facing our justice system today is our mass incarceration problem. The president has said before that we should enact laws that ensure “our crime policy is not only tough, but also smart.”  But tonight, while he has the attention of every member of Congress and the American people, I want to hear the president say that he supports an end to all mandatory minimum sentences, as I do.  Mandatory minimums are costly, unfair, and do not make our country safer.  For too long they have served as an easy way to score cheap political points: Want to prove you're tough on crime? Just add another mandatory minimum to the law. No need to bother with evidence that they do not make us safer; they make a nice talking point. That policy fallacy is one of the reasons we have the largest prison population in the world. And why $7 billion – nearly a third of the Justice Department’s budget – goes to the Bureau of Prisons instead of to community policing, victims services, or prison diversion programs that would make us safer and save taxpayers money.

Reagular readers will not be surprised to hear that I support the substance of what Senator Leahy is saying here.  But I am personally a bit surprised that the a ranking member (and former Chair) of the Senate Judiciary Committee is saying he think it is important for an executive branch official to say he opposes a legislative sentencing problem that Congress itself created and seems unable or unwilling to address dynamically. 

January 20, 2015 at 05:41 PM | Permalink

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