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August 15, 2007

Oh geez, who's briefing Obama on criminal justice issues?

This strong post by Jeralyn at TalkLeft points to this notable Boston Globe commentary by Derrick Jackson entitled "Obama's caution on drug sentencing."  As Jackson suggests, Barak Obama's latest comments about crack sentencing suggest both an ignorance and an apathy that I find quite surprising and disappointing.  Here are the parts of the Jackson column I find so troubling:

[Obama's] vacillation [on criminal justice issues] became evident as he kept talking about crack-vs.-powder sentencing, which has come to symbolize racial injustice in criminal justice.  He said that if he were to become president, he would support a commission to issue a report "that allows me to say that based on the expert evidence, this is not working and it's unfair and unjust. Then I would move legislation forward."

That was a puzzling statement because the US Sentencing Commission, created by Congress in 1984, has long said the system is not working and reaffirmed in April that the 100-to-1 ratio "significantly undermines" sentencing reform.

Obama asked if he could make a "broader" point. "Even if we fix this, if it was a 1-to-1 ratio, it's still a problem that folks are selling crack.  It's still a problem that our young men are in a situation where they believe the only recourse for them is the drug trade.  So there is a balancing act that has to be done in terms of, do we want to spend all our political capital on a very difficult issue that doesn't get at some of the underlying issues; whether we want to spend more of that political capital getting early childhood education in place, getting after-school programs in place, getting summer school programs in place."  Obama claimed, "I'm not suggesting it's an either/or but I'm suggesting that an even higher priority for me is getting young men and increasingly young women to stop getting involved in the drug trade in the first place. And that's going to require pretty heavy lifting.  That's going to require some billions of dollars of expenditure that aren't there right now."

By asking an open question about spending "all our political capital" on eliminating the 100-to-1 ratio, that raises the possibility he will spend little or none on it. By talking about a "broader" prescription of early childhood school programs -- which means nothing to a 17-year-old in jail -- Obama risks flashing a losing card of being nonconfrontational.  President Clinton tried that a decade ago and lost. Obama said he voted in Illinois to stop the perpetration of unjust laws.  Without a stronger voice on 100-to-1, he becomes part of the problem of continually passing criminal laws based on anecdote.

I find this so disappointing because I think effective reform of the federal criminal justice system (including its deep racial issues) needs an effective and forceful moral leader, not another unprincipled political strategist --- like Bill Clinton, who turned the federal criminal justice system to the right more than any of his Republican predecessors.  I was hopeful that Obama might be that leader, but now I fear I may have to look to some of the Republican candidates.  Sigh...

Some related posts:

August 15, 2007 at 08:44 PM | Permalink


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A smart Dem, if he or she wants to end the 100 to 1 powder/crack disparity, would package it as part of a "smarter on crime" overhaul. I am sure that the GOP would be happy to fix that issue, if the GOP could get better enforcement against criminal aliens, habeas reform etc. etc.

And Doug, it is completely unfair to impugn the federal system as "racist". There is a disparity, but the causes are generally non-racist.

Posted by: federalist | Aug 15, 2007 8:58:11 PM

Hear, hear, Professor. And "federalist," the good Professor didn't call the federal system "racist." We can fight till the cows (or criminals) come home about why the federal system has "deep racial issues," as he said, but the racial disparities are right there in the numbers.

Posted by: law student | Aug 15, 2007 10:38:06 PM

Anyone who has ever visited a jail, prison or in particular a juvenile detention center knows by inspection that there is a racial disparity. A police officer may have booked them into jail or a juvenile detention center but they if they stay it is because a judge thinks that is where they should be.

I live in a community that is 90% White, 3% Black and 7% other races. The jail bookings are 78% White, 19% Black and 3% other races independent of police department. The people who walk into jail be booked either to turn themselves in or to serve a sentence have the nearly same distribution. A third of the frequent fliers are Black. The prisoners held for more than three weeks can get up to 40% Black. I visited a juvenile detention center that was 100% Black females and evidently that is not that unusual.

It is hard to believe our criminal justice system is color blind when it produces such a large racial disparity.

Posted by: JSN | Aug 15, 2007 11:39:44 PM

Another disappointment is this statement: "It's still a problem that our young men are in a situation where they believe the only recourse for them is the drug trade."

Right. Drug dealers would really prefer to be regular guys with 9-to-5 jobs, but they turn to drug dealing because and only because they think that is beyond their grasp.

Does he really believe that myth?

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Aug 15, 2007 11:42:45 PM

Does he really believe that myth?
Do politicians generally believe much of what they say?

Posted by: | Aug 16, 2007 1:55:13 AM

Kent, why not move into their neighborhood and see for yourself what it is like, what the opportunities are, what the future looks like.

Come back and tell us about the myth.

Posted by: George | Aug 16, 2007 2:14:18 AM

Back to the topic of the post, it's terrible news that Obama's playing cautious on these subjects, because Hillary's bad on them too. Ironic, given the disparities accurately described in this string and the pivotal role of the black vote for Democrats.

Doc, is there anyone to vote for in either primary besides Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul who wants to do anything constructive on federal sentencing?

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Aug 16, 2007 8:30:10 AM

I think it's pretty clear that Obama is out of his depth in this race. Most every time he extemporizes, he reveals that he has little understanding about how things actually work when one is President.

Posted by: Steve | Aug 16, 2007 9:01:09 AM

It's so funny how liberal activists always seem to be disappointed by Dems and their stances on crime. Now, for whatever reason, many Dems seem to have softness on crime encoded into their DNA. However, they are usually not stupid enough to take highly publicized positions to reduce criminal penalties or to restrict the death penalty (see, e.g., Gov. Strickland of Ohio). Barack Obama is just another example. Any twit (i.e., Obama) who's dumb enough to call the justice system the "Just-us" system, in his heart of hearts, is a criminal coddler and is overly suspicious of a system that endeavors to keep us all safe. So Barack Obama won't have any trouble with criminal coddling rulings from the bench or appointing left-wing criminal coddlers to the federal bench, but there is no way in hell that Obama is going to risk his presidential hopes (slim as they are) on a bunch of criminals. We all saw what happened (and rightfully so) to Mike Dukakis over furloughs. No Dem in his right mind will risk that again. This is why Dems are going to roll on this nonsensical sanctuary policy that has allowed criminal aliens to remain in the US. When the issue wasn't that big of a deal, then Dems acted true to form (i.e., siding with criminal aliens over the rights of society), but do you think any Dem is going to seriously fight for sanctuary, given recent news. Doubtful.

Posted by: federalist | Aug 16, 2007 10:42:07 AM

Grits, Joe Biden has introduced a bill to reduce the crack/cocaine disparity, S. 1711, and he's also been pushing for S. 1060, one of the now-numerous "Second Chance" bills, but seeing as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was known as the "Biden Crime Bill," some are skeptical of his sentencing reform credentials.

Posted by: law student | Aug 16, 2007 12:44:55 PM

As usual, you people who have never been incarcerated, lived in a bad neighborhood nor have opportunity denied to you, like to says there are no racial disparity or even a racist system. If you have not experience any of the above then you are not qualified to make contrary statements. Glenn Beck once said to Rev. Shapton that "he did not know racism exist until he left his suburban community." Huh, who is he kidding?

Posted by: | Aug 16, 2007 1:39:34 PM

federalist, For the record, I think it is you that is soft on crime. You have REFUSED to specify what percentage of the country should be incarcerated. All you have said is that it is too low. I have said that I would be willing to tolerate 65% incarceration. You refused to endorse than number. (The actual procedure for reaching this goal, we can decide on later, but it would involve random searches, preventative detention, and analysis of the URLs and Applebees you visited.) The rest of your post is just political babbling, which really isn’t appropriate for non-lawyers to get involved in.

Strangely, 1:39, you bring up an interesting point. People don’t know racism exists until they have lived in the suburbs. Therefore, I now have justification for my belief that it is useless to listen to poor people. They have no idea of the kind of life that I live, my values, and the opportunities (that they don’t even understand) available to me. Some of them have never even taken the LSATs.

Posted by: S.cotus | Aug 16, 2007 2:20:25 PM

S.cotus, I am 1:39 and Joe in the same pod. I have lived in both environments and experienced both poverty and wealth. So I do know the life of the two worlds. Since you have only experience one world,I can now understand why you are prejudiced against poor people. I have taken the LSAT and failed miserably. But I am financially well off.
I know that what you have now can end any day and you may get to experience being poor. You are not exempt. So be careful.

Posted by: | Aug 16, 2007 3:20:35 PM

For S.cotus to make the comment he made is terrible and he should not be allowed freedom of speech. I am proud that he is not running for president, because the poor people of the nation would definitely be screwed. And, considering there are a lot more poor people in the nation than "rich people" he just makes himself look really ignorant. You should not have the right to vote or speak. You are one of the reasons that our country is as screwed up as it is.

Posted by: jubria | Aug 16, 2007 4:20:31 PM

Jubria, S.cotus is just looking for attention. He doesn't even know that the 11th Amendment isn't part of the "Bill of Rights". He claims to be a lawyer, but he cannot even figure out the plain meaning of Indiana criminal law statutes on duress. Maybe he's not a lawyer . . . .

Posted by: federalist | Aug 16, 2007 9:41:07 PM

Federalist, I would like to tell you what he really is, but I will be as civilized as possible. I don't think he is a lawyer either, but if he is I know he is not a defense lawyer. If he is all of his clients are in trouble.

Posted by: jubria | Aug 17, 2007 12:32:44 AM

I think both of you are good at taking things out of context and not seeing irony.

Since this is the internet, and I am not giving legal advice, whether or not I am a lawyer is irrelevant. Federalist has said many times that he is not a lawyer, but I don't know if that matters or not.

Posted by: S.cotus | Aug 17, 2007 11:02:03 AM

I know that S.cotus is being ironic but there has to be an upper limit to the incarceration rate that is far smaller than 65%. At 65% incarceration the cost of incarceration would be about 35% of the gross domestic product and I would think the economic consequences would become intolerable at a much earlier stage.

Posted by: JSN | Aug 17, 2007 3:29:05 PM

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