Thursday, May 01, 2008

Stuntz nails (some) reasons why Democrats are perhaps most responsible for modern mass incarceration

Providing a very valuable set of political insights during this political season, Bill Stuntz has this must-read post titled "Who is Responsible for America's Swollen Prison Population?".  Here are excerpts:

Who is responsible for the now-famous "punitive turn" in American criminal justice?

The best answer is probably: everyone in a position of political or legal authority over the last thirty years.  But I'm pretty sure one common answer — we have a huge, disproportionately black prison population primarily because of the policy choices made by conservative Republicans like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush — is wrong.  The political right plainly contributed, and contributed a lot, to the generation-long run-up in our prison population.  But the political left probably contributed even more....

For Republicans to win votes on crime, all they need do is talk about it: the Willie Horton ad that helped turn the 1988 election is a prime example.  No Clinton-style inoculation is needed.  For Democrats to win those same votes, they need to take the kind of action that shows their toughness: hence Rector's execution.  Rising imprisonment has been the price Democrats have had to pay in order to win power and enact the policy changes they really want.  At least, that story seems to fit the scattered examples listed above.

There is a lot more great stuff in Bill's post (and also in comments appearing there and at Volokh), but I want to take issue with this one specific assertion: "Rising imprisonment has been the price Democrats have had to pay in order to win power and enact the policy changes they really want."  I would change the phrase in bold to say "the price the Clinton wing of the Democratic party is always eager to pay to win power."  Indeed, as Stuntz highlights in his post, elected Democratic officials (who are mostly white and rich) do not really pay any direct price from rising imprisonment; the real costs of rising imprisonment are borne mostly by poor and minority polulations and their families.

Though I may be politically naive, I strongly resist the conventional wisdom that being tough, tougher and even tougher with imprisonment terms is the only way for Democrats to win political power, especially in the context of non-violent crimes.  Nevertheless, as Senator Hillary Clinton's expressed opposition to crack retroactivity highlights, the Clintonian (and perhaps broader Democratic) eagerness to sell out poor and minority populations and their families through criminal justice politicking is not likely to change anytime soon.  Sigh...

Some related posts:

May 1, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Why aren't the terrorist pardons during the Clinton Administration garnering more attention from the MSM?

Because I look at much of the news from a criminal justice perspective, I find the complaints that the MSM is biased against Senator Clinton to be somewhat comical given the "free pass" she has gotten on a lot of questionable criminal justice decisions made during the Clinton Administration.  The most obvious example of these realities comes from the attack on Senator Obama concerning connections to a member of the Weather Underground and toughness on terrorism.  If this is a serious campaign issue, the mainstream media ought to be closely re-examining at, and asking Senator Clinton hard questions about, the pardons given during the Clinton Administration to two Weather Underground members and to members of a group of Puerto Rican terrorists (FALN). 

Fortunately, some thoughtful bloggers are trying to make sure these pardon issues does not get lost in all the obsession over Senator Obama.  The blog Pardon Power, helpfully, has had an on-going series of effective posts on this front, including recently:

In addition, as detailed in these posts, a Mother Jones blog has been pursuing this story in recent days:

My sense from reading these posts (combined with knowing a bit about a lot of ugly stories surrounding President Bill Clinton's various pardon decisions) leads me to think there might by a lot more to discover if the media we to do some serious investigative journalism about these pardons and Senator Clinton's possible input.  Sadly, I do not get the sense, even with seemingly endless discussion of the Democratic race, that many in the MSM are seriously trying to develop new stories rather than just recycling the standard narratives.

April 24, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (22) | TrackBack

Saturday, April 19, 2008

"Take a Nibble Out of Crime"

The title of this post is the title of this reaction over at The New Republic to Senator Clinton's recently announced crime-fighting proposals.  Here are parts of the commentary:

Hillary Clinton gave a major policy speech on crime in Philadelphia one week ago.... Clinton's views on sentencing retroactivity, for the tens of thousands who have been locked up under the current cocaine guidelines, are of equal importance.  Commuting prisoner sentences to terms they would have served under the new law is, of course, the right thing to do.  But in Iowa, Clinton told viewers of the Black/Brown debate: "In principle I have problems with retroactivity," she said. "It's something a lot of communities will be concerned about as well." Which communities?  Why?

The drug wars, addressed intelligently on our site by former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, are not a by-the-wayside policy issue on which Clinton can smudge her former stances without scrutiny.  What's more, this anti-crime gambit looks to be an attempt to reverse a monthslong pattern of tacking rightward on criminal justice policy (back when Clinton still had a "general election strategy").  In New Hampshire, for example, Clinton tweaked Barack Obama for his liberal stance on "criminal defendants' rights" and his "extremely progressive record" in Chicago. Who knows to what that refers.

By the Philly address — never having answered that important question on retroactivity — Clinton was putting $1 billion up for grabs among states that want to commit resources to lowering rates of recidivism.  But being unjustly punished and backsliding into crime are not totally unrelated issues; longer jail terms erode workplace skills, fossilize social attitudes and drain meaningful support systems — all of which are critical to the well-being of a sucessful parolee.  That she would pay for her ambitious $4 billion plan by identifying "unnecessary and outdated corporate subsidies for elimination" (rather than housing and processing costs for thousands of crack offenders) only spotlights the blinders that make real reform in government seem like make-believe.

Some posts on crime and punishment and the 2008 campaign:

April 19, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Will the Baze decision (and the Kennedy argument) make the death penalty a hot political issue?

As regular readers know, I have been eagerly awaiting a time when the death penalty is a major political issue in the 2008 campaign.  Notably, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Indiana — not no mention the federal government — all have very interesting death penalty practices and politics.  And, with the Baze lethal injection ruling today and the Kennedy child rape oral argument, the news cycle will surely be focused on death penalty issues over the next few days.

I am very hopeful and eager for reporters and pundits to ask all the major candidates a lot of hard questions about the death penalty, in part because I do not think any of them have good talking points on the intricate (and politically complicated) "culture of life" issues that the modern system of capital punishment raises.  I am not optimistic that we will have a sober or sensible political discussion of the modern death penalty, but at least we may have a sound-bite one that will provide grist for my blogging mill.

Some recent related posts:

April 16, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Friday, April 11, 2008

So much in (and missing from) Senator Clinton's anti-crime proposal

As first noted here, Senator Clinton proposed to spend $4 billion a year on anti-crime measures in a big speech in Philadelphia today.  Details on her proposal are now available in this loooong press release on her website.  Interestingly, the press release is titled "Hillary Clinton Sets Goal Of Cutting Murder Rate In Half: 'Solutions For Safe & Secure Communities Now' Plan Will Provide 100,000 New Cops And Invest $1 Billion To Reduce Number Of Repeat Offenders."  There is almost too much included in the plan to take it all in.

Perhaps what is as notable as what's in the Clinton plan is what is missing.  For example, consider this press report on the plan, headlined "Clinton gun shy in Pennsylvania crime address."  Here are snippets:

Hillary Clinton today declared a goal of cutting the nation's big-city murder rate in half, addressing an issue that has dominated politics here but avoiding a mention of the one thing that local officials see as a consensus solution to their crime problem: new gun laws....

Clinton talked about gangs and drugs as a cause of homicides, but mentioned guns only in passing. She noted “a direct correlation between the illegal gun sales and homicides,” as she proposed a new initiative to crack down on interstate gun trafficking and allow federal agencies to share information on the transfer of guns.  In addition, Clinton said she would work to renew the assault-weapons ban, signed by President Clinton in 1994 but allowed to lapse a decade later.

"She's being respectful of what's really her base," said Ken Lawrence, a Pennsylvania Democratic consultant neutral in the presidential campaign. "But I don't know how you talk about homicide in Philadelphia without talking about guns."

Relatedly, I noticed that the Clinton press release says nothing about sentencing reform issues and says very little about mass incarceration.  In addition, there was nary a mention of the death penalty, pro or con, or about the on-going debate over lethal injection protocols or about wrongful convictions in capital cases and non-capital cases. 

Interestingly, regarding mandatory minimums, the press release does have this notable line: "At the federal level, Hillary will reform mandatory minimums for non-violent offenders, starting by eliminating the mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack cocaine and eliminating the disparity between crack and powder cocaine."  Of course, she could mean that she plans to increase the mandatory penalty for powder cocaine in order to deal with the crack/powder disparity, but I seriously hope that's not exactly what she has in mind.

April 11, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Senator Clinton making a campaign offensive on crime

A helpful reader pointed me to this exciting news from the presidential campaign trail:

Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton is proposing to spend $4 billion a year on anti-crime measures, including programs meant to reduce the number of ex-convicts who return to prison.  The money also would help communities hire more police officers and "community-oriented prosecutors."

Under the New York senator's plan, to be detailed Friday in a speech in Philadelphia, states would compete for $1 billion in annual grants to combat recidivism. It would "promote tough but fair" changes to probation practices and to existing programs meant to steer non-violent drug offenders away from prison, her presidential campaign said in an outline provided early Friday. The goal is to make punishment more certain for those who violate their probation, while also enhancing efforts to help former drug users stay clean and thereby avoid prison, campaign aides said.

They said Clinton would pay for the $4 billion initiative with savings to be identified by a commission she will assign to "identify unnecessary and outdated corporate subsidies for elimination."  Groups that oppose deficit spending urge campaigns to be more specific in saying how they will pay for new programs. 

Clinton's plan would hire 100,000 new police officers "to address crime, through a modernized personnel grant program." It would spend $250 million a year on "community-oriented prosecutors."

Compared to earlier presidential campaigns, especially those in the 1970s, this year's contest has focused relatively scant attention on crime, with the Iraq war and economic woes dominating the debate. Clinton, noting that violent crime has begun to rise after several years of decline, will focus on the subject Friday as she competes with Sen. Barack Obama for votes in Pennsylvania's April 22 primary.

Here was the first-cut reaction of the thoughtful person who sent me a link to this story: "It appears that your earlier posts regarding crime emerging as a campaign issue have proved prescient.  This is probably a smart -- though cynical -- move on Clinton's part; based on anecdotal experiences growing up in the Pittsburgh area, I suspect that the crime issue will play well and possibly stem Obama's growing momentum in PA."

Here is my first-cut reaction: I am very, very excited that Senator Clinton is starting focus seriously on "anti-crime measures," but I am highly suspect that she is going to be able to effectively fund $4 billion initiative with savings from the elimination of "unnecessary and outdated corporate subsidies for elimination."  How about instead finding extra money by focusing instead on fixing unnecessary and outdated extreme sentencing terms, like those for non-violent crack offenders.  Oh wait, Senator Clinton was against crack retroactivity, so it seems that being tough on corporations, rather than kind to over-sentenced offenders, is the economic key to her anti-crime plans.

Some posts on crime and punishment and the 2008 campaign:

April 11, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

FAMM suggests sentencing questions for the candidates

I just noticed that Families Against Mandatory Minimums has this new newsletter focused on the ways in which the "next president of the United States will have the power to influence sentencing policy for the next four to eight years."  Among many interesting facets of the newsletter is a small section that suggests these "sample questions for candidates":

If your loved one is a first-time offender:  Since my loved one (son, wife, etc.) — a first-time, nonviolent drug offender — began serving __ years for a (drug conspiracy, selling marijuana, etc.), I have learned about our lengthy mandatory minimum drug sentences. Do you support repealing mandatory sentences in favor of a structure that allows courts to consider the facts of the case and choose an appropriate sentence, and why?

If you are a concerned citizen:

  • It costs at least $22,000 a year to incarcerate a nonviolent drug offender, and five, 10 and 20-year mandatory sentences are commonplace.  What more cost-effective ways of protecting public safety do you support?
  • Mandatory sentences are under intense scrutiny for being overly harsh, racially biased and ineffective at reducing demand for drugs.  What do you plan to do to ensure fair and proportionate sentences for all defendants?
  • Would you support repealing mandatory sentences in favor of a structure that allows courts to consider the facts of the case and choose an appropriate sentence?

April 1, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Is ignorance bliss as Campaign 2008 ignores crime and punishment issues?

Writing here in The New Republic, Robert Gordon has a notable commentary entitled "Criminal Intent: The presidential candidates need to stop ignoring America's crime problem — and start considering innovative solutions."  Here is how the commentary begins:

Here's a funny thing about this presidential campaign season: Two crime dramas — "The Wire" and "Law & Order" — have gotten more attention than actual crime.  Twenty years ago, with the crack epidemic peaking, George Bush rode to victory using Willie Horton against Michael Dukakis.  Now, with the violent crime rate one-third lower, Republicans no longer try to paint Democrats as soft on crime, and Democrats no longer feel the need to prove themselves tough on the issue.  Campus shootings in Virginia and Illinois have barely registered politically, and President Bush's evisceration of aid to local cops has received little attention on the campaign trail. Even Rudy Giuliani, who made his name fighting murder and mayhem in New York, included nothing on crime among his major campaign planks.

Although the end of law-and-order demagoguery is welcome, America still has a crime problem — or, rather, two crime problems.  On one hand, the crime drop of the 1990s has ended, without delivering real relief to many communities.  For example, while murder is down dramatically in New York and Chicago, homicide rates in Baltimore and Detroit are about the same as in 1995 — and 25 percent higher than New York's rate at its 1990 peak. In many inner cities, violence and the fear of violence remain central facts of life that drive away jobs, small businesses, and successful families. Overall, the country's homicide rate is still three times higher than England's or Australia's, and twice that of Canada. According to the University of Chicago's Jens Ludwig, crime costs the United States on the order of $2 trillion a year.

At the same time, America's incarceration rate — the highest on earth — continues to balloon. According to a recent report from the Pew Center on the States, one in 100 U.S. adults is now behind bars, the largest percentage in our history.  The racial imbalance is even more disturbing: One in 106 white men is in prison, compared to one in 15 African-American men.  Overall, our incarceration rate is four times higher than it was in 1980, and more than five times that of England or Canada.

This commentary makes an astute observation about the apparent eagerness for the 2008 campaign to ignore crime and punishment issues.  However, the essay fails to take Bill Clinton to task for transforming the Democratic Party into a party that has — in my view, wrongly — concluded that "law-and-order demagoguery" is essential to winning elections. 

Though this commentary starts by noting the Willie Horton ad that played a role in the 1988 Bush-Dukakis election, it fails to highlight that Bill Clinton in 1992 and throughout his presidency (directly and indirectly) urged Democrats to be involved in "law-and-order demagoguery."  It is against this backdrop that it was so telling and so sad that Senator Hillary Clinton this year was the only Democrat to speak out against the retroactivity of the crack guidelines.  That choice, in my opinion, showed that Senator Clinton still believe that electoral success (even against fellow Democrats) is to be achieved through "law-and-order demagoguery."

Give these realities, it may be an good that so far none of the major Presidential candidates are talking about crime and punishment issues.  The Clintonian approach now seems to be to use these issues as a wedge to beat up on fellow Democrats, and that approach likely ensures that we get policies and politics (at least at the national level) that contribute to both the crime problems that the TNR piece discusses.   

Some posts on crime and punishment and the 2008 campaign:

Cross-posted at PrawfsBlawg

March 26, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (44) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Is there growing public concern with sentencing and prison reform?

This new article, headined "Prison reform on public radar," suggests that the public is starting to take note of some sentencing and prison issues.  I am not sure this is true, in part because the leading presidential candidates have so far largely avoided any serious discussion of crime and punishment issues.

That said, The Sentencing Project this week has produced an exciting new resource for sentencing fans who are also political junkies:

The Sentencing Project is pleased to publish a guide to the 2008 Presidential Candidates' Platforms on Criminal Justice. This guide provides information on a range of key criminal justice issues, including sentencing policy, reentry, death penalty, and felony disenfranchisement.

The Sentencing Project is a nonpartisan public policy organization that does not support or oppose the candidacy of any candidate for public office.  This document is designed to make the public better aware of the candidates' positions on criminal justice policy, an issue that has received relatively little attention in the current political debate.  Voters should learn all they can about the candidates on a range of issues and should not rely on any single source of information before making their decision.

March 25, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Good news for criminal defense lawyers who want to run for office?

In this post a few weeks ago, I linked to this Newsday article providing a long account of Senator Clinton's work as a criminal defense attorney three decades ago.  The Newsday article seemed to be written to provide talking points against HRC because of her work on behalf of an accused rapist: it stressed that "a 27-year-old Hillary Rodham, acting as a court-appointed attorney, attacked the credibility of a 12-year-old girl in mounting an aggressive defense for an indigent client accused of rape in Arkansas."  Interestingly, though, this story did not end up having any legs in the heated 2008 campaign; I cannot even recall seeing any legal blogosphere discussion of this article.

But now I see this notable new article from the American Lawyer, which asks "Is Clinton's Corporate Law Background Hurting Her Candidacy?".  Here are snippets from this very interesting article:

An inarguable fact — and lawyers love inarguable facts! — is that Hillary Clinton spent the longest stretch of her professional life working in a corporate law firm. From 1977 to 1992 she worked as a lawyer in the firm of Rose, Nash, Williamson, Carroll, Clay & Giroir (renamed Rose Law Firm in 1980) in Little Rock, Ark.  She devotes a single sentence to these years on her campaign Web site: "She continued her legal career as a partner in a law firm." (And this, in a section called "Mother and Advocate.")...

The ability to argue all sides of an issue is a hallmark of the lawyerly mind.  Hillary's ability to assert moral residency on different ideological sides of an issue showed itself soon after she joined the Rose firm....

Neither Hillary Clinton nor the average corporate law partner is likely to make anyone's blood jump or heart sing.  When you are in trouble, however — real trouble — it may be that the person you want to see isn't the guy who wows you with his wit and charisma, but someone who has really done her homework, pored over all the boring details, and then gone back over them again, just for fun.  It's pretty clear that the country is in real trouble. Bridges are falling down; the stock market is all over the place; and let's not even bring up Iraq or Sudan.  This might or might not be the right time to look past Hillary Clinton's cool, corporate, bill-by-the-hour sensibility, her lawyerly inclination to avoid risk and run everything past the pollsters, to smile and keep a stiff upper lip because appearance and propriety matter more than most things — and certainly more than impropriety.

So, all you wanna-be lawyer-pols out there, it seems your political future could be hurt more by time in a corporate law firm than from time practicing criminal defense.

Cross-posted at PrawfsBlawg (under a different post title).

March 13, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Monday, March 10, 2008

Might crime and punishment finally start drawing the attention of the candidates and the media?

After tomorrow's Mississippi primary, there will be no votes cast in the presidential races for six weeks.  This  rest period should give the candidates and the media a chance to focus on important issues facing the national that have so far gotten little attention during the crazy cross-country sprint that we've seen since Iowa voters got the primary season started a little over nine weeks ago.  Of course, I am hoping that crime and punishment issues come to the forefront during this valuable quietus.

Notably, the states garnering the most media attention right now — Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania —all have some important state criminal justice issues worthy of the candidate's and the media's time and attention: Florida continues to struggle with significant felon disenfranchisement problems; Michigan is one of a few states now spending more money on its prison system than on higher education; Pennsylvania has one of the nation's largest death rows, but it has not executed anyone in nearly a decade.

Some posts on crime and punishment and the 2008 campaign

March 10, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Exposing the (racist?) hypocrisy of Clintonian speeches without solutions

I am pleased to see this new piece at the Huffington Post, titled "Hillary, Bill and Obama on Crack," is trying to bring the Clintons to account for their disappointing and very telling pandering on federal sentencing issues.  Here are the basics: 

While Bill Clinton is apologizing for not having done more to reduce the disparity in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine that is in part responsible for putting one in nine young black men in prison, his wife opposes even the most modest attempt to fix the problem.

Hillary Clinton has come out against making retroactive the small change in sentencing guidelines that allows some people convicted under the overly harsh crack laws to have their sentences reviewed by a judge, and if they are found eligible, given early release.  Most blacks affected will still serve more than a decade in prison for a nonviolent crime for which whites often escape incarceration entirely — but nevermind. Hillary has bought into fears that this means a sudden massive release of an army of Willie Hortons....

As her husband did before her, when it comes time to make a choice between something that can be used as a political tool against her or doing the right thing and explaining the complexity, Hillary chooses expedience.

It's great to hear that Bill regrets sacrificing the lives of IV drug users and their sexual partners and children to his fear of being demagogued on needle exchange and now to learn that he opposes his own policies on drug sentencing.  But it sounds like Hillary will be saying the same things only after she leaves office if she wins it — when it means absolutely nothing.

Some related prior posts of mine on race, sentencing and the 2008 campaign:



March 6, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Friday, February 29, 2008

Senator Clinton talks a good game on sentencing reform

A helpful reader sent me this link from a Vibe Magazing Q&A with Senator Hillary Clinton. This portion is especially notable in light of Senator Clinton's expressed opposition to crack retroactivity:

VIBE: In your speech, you talked about having first, second, and third chances for children. In the last ten years the rate of incarceration of women has increased exponentially. I don’t think the average person realizes that it’s not 50% or 100%, it’s like 750% in the last thirty years. There are a disproportionate number of African-American men and women who are going to be released from prison with felony convictions. What do we do about that group of people who are effectively disenfranchised when they come out?

CLINTON: Number one, we need to divert more people from the prison system. We have too many people in prison for non-violent drug offenses, which disproportionately impacts on the African-American community. That’s why I’ve been a strong advocate of eliminating the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine [sentencing].

There may have been a reason for it 25 years ago but there isn’t any justification for it now.  But it also means that in the prisons themselves, we’ve got to get back to the services that used to be there. They have mostly been eliminated — GED programs, college credit programs, drug and alcohol abuse programs — I mean, it is like a wasteland.  We put too many people in there and then we basically forget about them. And then when people come out we need a system of second-chance programs. And we need to move to restore people’s rights.  They need to feel like they’ve done whatever time they’re supposed to do and now they are back as a full participant. So we need a network of job-training programs, of housing programs, of civic engagement and education programs.

And there are some good examples around. The Fortune Society in New York does a really good job.  Other places like Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, NY that hires ex-offenders and trains them. We can do this on a larger scale than what we’re doing now. And a lot of the job training programs we used to have in this country, which has been decimated, need to be brought back so we can, as I have argued, put people to work in green collar jobs. We should be training people; we should be doing that in the prisons.  We should be giving people skills that are going to be part of the economy of the future.

February 29, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cracked history: How Hillary Clinton really "played the race card" and Sean Wilentz failed to notice

Writing at length in the New Republic, historian Sean Wilentz throws strong charges at the Obama campaign in this piece titled, "Race Man: How Barack Obama played the race card and blamed Hillary Clinton."  Though the interesting piece should be read in full, I find most telling that Wilentz does not even mention the most seeming racialized decision that Hillary Clinton has made during the campaign, namely her remarkable decision in December to oppose retroactive application of the new crack guidelines.

As I highlighted in this first post, the only prominent opponents to retroactivity for the new USSC guidelines have been President Bush's Justice Department (noted here), Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee (noted here), and Senator Hillary Clinton.  I was so disappointed by Senator Clinton's position --- and have blogged about it so much --- because it seemed to be a racialized decision that echoed her husband's tendency to talk a good game about racial justice, but then actively support criminal justice laws that have well-known and pernicious racial inequities.

To the extent that anyone has justifiable complaints about race in the campaign and the media's coverage, I think the complaints should be focused on the media's failure (and perhaps also the Obama campaign's failure) to demand that Senator Clinton explain the basis for her position on this and other racialized criminal justice issues.

Some related prior posts of mine on race, sentencing and the 2008 campaign:

February 27, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Monday, February 25, 2008

Hillary Clinton as a criminal defense lawyer

This big Newday article provides me with proof that I can still learn something new about someone whom I thought I knew everything about.  Here are small snippets of a long piece that may be an especially interesting read for law student and law professors:

In 1975, a 27-year-old Hillary Rodham, acting as a court-appointed attorney, attacked the credibility of a 12-year-old girl in mounting an aggressive defense for an indigent client accused of rape in Arkansas —  using her child development background to help the defendant....

In her 2003 autobiography "Living History," Clinton writes that she initially balked at the assignment, but eventually secured a lenient plea deal for Taylor after a New York-based forensics expert she hired "cast doubt on the evidentiary value of semen and blood samples collected by the sheriff's office."...

"She was vigorously advocating for her client.  What she did was appropriate," said Andrew Schepard, director of Hofstra Law School's Center for Children, Families and the Law.  "He was lucky to have her as a lawyer ... In terms of what's good for the little girl?  It would have been hell on the victim.  But that wasn't Hillary's problem."...

February 25, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

The politics of clemencies and pardons in Campaign 2008

Bt261211I often lament that sentencing issues have not been significant political issues of late, especially because the shifting focus to Ohio and Texas should justify some discussion of death and dollars in the two leading execution states.  Fortunately, folks interested in Campaign 2008 and clemency issues should be sure to check out Pardon Power, where one can find these notable recent posts:

Of course, it is not only Democrats with some pardon baggage.  Today I saw for the first time the cool political button pictured here, which parodies President Bush's commutation of Scooter Libby's prison sentence. 

Whether the issue is the Libby commutation, or Bill Clinton's ugly clemency record, or the calls for a commutation for the former Border Agents now serving long prison terms, I suspect that clemency issues will get some real traction at some point in the 2008 campaign.  Exactly when and by whom the issue gets raised will be interesting to watch.

February 25, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Aren't extreme sentences and mass incarceration a "tired philosophy that trusts in government more than people"?

This phrase in John McCain's speech last night really caught my attention as a sentencing geek: in his most-quoted line, Senator McCain cautions against "the false promises and failed policies of a tired philosophy that trusts in government more than people."  Though I know this is means as an attack on liberal social policies, it strikes me as an especially effective attack line against "tough-on-crime" political rhetoric that seeks to increase incarceration for any and all criminal offenses.

Consider this issue, for example, in the context of white-collar prosecutions and sentencing.  After the Enron scandal, sentences for white-collar crimes went up dramatically.  But this "tough-on-crime" approach did not prevent all the mortgage fraud and predatory practices that helped contribute to the current economic woes.

Of course, an even more obvious example is the seemingly endless "war on drugs."  As long sentences for all sorts of non-violent drug crimes continue to be imposed,  I cannot think of a more fitting setting in which we see, year-in and year-out, politicians promoting "false promises and failed policies of a tired philosophy that trusts in government more than people."

February 20, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 10, 2008

"Where candidates stand on crime, death penalty"

The title of this post is the title of this new article in the San Francisco Chronicle.  Before even reading the article, I already knew that all the 2008 presidential candidates are generally against crime and generally for the death penalty, but the article usefully provides a bit more nuance that its headline. Here are some long snippets from a very notable article:

With the Democratic nomination still up in the air after the Super Tuesday primaries, the evolving stances of Clinton and Obama on crime and punishment offer a point of comparison for voters in upcoming primaries, including Tuesday's votes in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. Although Clinton and Obama, both lawyers, have some important differences, their positions on two of the most politically sensitive crime issues — the death penalty and gun control — have converged....

The two differ on crime-related issues that have a lower profile but affect many thousands of prisoners, most of them minorities — the disparity between sentences for offenses involving crack and powder cocaine, and the merits of federal mandatory-minimum sentencing laws.  On both, Clinton lines up with the prosecution, Obama with the defense.

Such disagreements scarcely exist on the Republican side. John McCain, Mitt Romney (who dropped out of the race Thursday) and Mike Huckabee are equally fervent in their support of the death penalty, opposition to gun control, allegiance to the war on drugs and abhorrence of liberal judges, while occasionally accusing one another of backsliding.  One note of dissent comes from Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, who opposes three-strikes sentencing laws, saying they have "created a system that is overrun with people, and the cost is choking us." But the real dissident in the Republican race is Paul, the Texas libertarian, who opposes the death penalty, favors drug decriminalization and thinks the federal government has far too big a presence in law enforcement....

It's true that most crime is prosecuted locally.  But any president can exert a powerful influence on crime policies by backing or blocking legislation on wiretapping, guns, corporate wrongdoing or defendants' rights; by appointing judges, the attorney general, U.S. attorneys, and members of agencies like the U.S. Sentencing Commission; and by deciding whether federal prosecutors should chiefly target gangs, drugs, pornography or securities fraud. 

Crime is seldom a prominent issue in presidential primaries, largely because the front-runners in each party typically take similar positions. But the subject can explode on Democrats in a November election. The prime example was in 1988, when Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who had led Republican Vice President George Bush in early opinion polls, came under withering attack for his support of a furlough program that allowed a convicted murderer named William Horton — dubbed "Willie" in campaign ads — to leave prison in 1986 and rape a Maryland woman.

Dukakis was also the last major-party nominee to oppose the death penalty. He was hurt politically when he responded without apparent emotion to a debate question about whether he would favor execution for someone who raped and murdered his wife.  Bill Clinton, by contrast, interrupted his 1992 presidential campaign and flew back to Arkansas for the execution of a brain-damaged killer named Rickey Ray Rector.  As president, Clinton signed a 1994 crime bill that included a major expansion of the federal death penalty; according to the New York Times, first lady Hillary Clinton lobbied fellow Democrats for that provision. Bill Clinton also signed a 1996 law restricting state prisoners' ability to appeal their convictions and sentences in federal court....

The Democrats' clearest differences involve sentencing for drug crimes, including the disparity between terms for crack cocaine offenses, which affect mostly black prisoners, and terms for powder cocaine, which affect mostly whites.  When the Sentencing Commission voted in November to lower sentencing guidelines for crack-related crimes, and bring them closer to sentences for powder cocaine, Obama favored applying the new terms retroactively to current prisoners, while Clinton opposed it, saying the change should affect only future cases.  The commission voted for retroactivity in December, allowing 19,500 federal inmates to ask judges for sentence reductions, about two years in most cases.

Clinton has also questioned Obama's proposal to scrap some of the more than 170 federal mandatory-minimum laws, which require judges to impose specified prison sentences, most commonly for drug crimes.  Noting that the laws mostly affect minorities and have had many critics, including the late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Obama has attacked them as unfair to defendants and unduly restrictive on judges, but he has stopped short of calling for a wholesale repeal.  Instead, he promises to review all mandatory minimums and try to eliminate those he considers too harsh.

UPDATE:  Over at TalkLeft, Jeralyn has this long post providing more perspective on these issues, and she concludes with this assertion:

To say Obama is more progressive on crime issues or that he takes the defense line while Hillary toes the prosecution line, is not accurate. Neither one is particularly progressive or defense oriented.  Their minor differences are just that, minor.

Rather than debate labels here, I would rather concentrate on records.  Throughout his Presidency, Bill Clinton showed to the right on crime to score political points (and this SFC article suggests Hillary Clinton played a key role in these moves). I was so disappointed by Hillary Clinton's recent stance on crack retroactivity because it revealed that she, too, was very ready and seemingly quite willing to sell-out principles (and criminal defendants) as part of a misguided effort to score political points.  As the San Francisco Chronicle spotlights, it likely made a lot of political sense in 1992 for Bill Clinton to try to move the democrats to the right on crime issues.  But, 16 years later, the modern dynamics of crime and politics have changed dramatically, and I think the country now desperately needs leaders who worry more about modern justice realities than about dated political rhetoric.

February 10, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, February 04, 2008

Super Tuesday and sentencing "change"

Tomorrow, so-called Super Tuesday, will likely be the biggest single day in the 2008 presidential campaign until November.  Thus, I thought it appropriate to spotlight a few of my favorite posts from my Campaign 2008 archive as pundits everywhere gear up for the big day:

Needless to say, I am caught up in all the "change" talk coming from all the candidates, and I am sincerely hoping that change may extend to our current misguided affinity for long terms of incarceration for lots of non-violent offenders.  I think some of the candaidates are more likely than others to work seriously toward sentencing change, but I fear these issues will be relatively low-priority matters for anyone elected in 2008.

February 4, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Race, class and criminal justice in campaign 2008

This new article from the Los Angeles Times, headlined "Obama turns his attention to race issue," suggests that Barack Obama's new focus on racial issues has taken a criminal justice turn.  Here are snippets from the article:

Barack Obama was down to his shirt-sleeves under the hot gym lights at South Carolina State University, exhorting students at this historically black college that America can and must be transformed. "We cannot treat our poor with disregard," he thundered Tuesday, cataloging America's racial ills, starting with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. "We can't leave New Orleans in a mess and then expect to be a model for this world."

Here at the site of the Orangeburg Massacre -- where three students were killed and 27 injured by law enforcement agents during civil rights-era demonstrations to integrate a nearby bowling alley -- Obama decried a criminal-justice system fraught with inequity. "I don't want Scooter Libby justice for some and Jena justice for other folks," he said, contrasting the white Republican ex-lobbyist with the black youths in Louisiana....

He answered a question about federal drug-sentencing guidelines without saying the word "black," though activists have long complained that stiffer sentences are meted out to blacks who smoke crack than whites who snort cocaine.

Even though I believe race is a huge factor in our criminal justice system and even though I am not a political strategist, I think Obama is making a huge strategic mistake focusing on criminal justices when wanting to take about race.  I believe Obama could (and should) talk forcefully about criminal justice issues primarily in terms of class, not race. 

Obama could (and should) talk not about "Libby justice," but rather about "Rich justice," which could and should be a sly reference to Bill Clinton's ugly pardon of Marc Rich.  Obama could (and should) highlight that upper-middle-class drug dealers are treated as heroes in TV shows, while poor drug dealers are often subject to harsh mandatory minimum sentences.  Obama could (and should) highlight that college graduates are far less likely to commit crimes than high-school dropouts and thus investing resources in education for the disadvantaged is likely the most cost-effective way to fight crime.  Obama could (and should) highlight that much of the money society need for broader health care coverage is now being spent incarcerating low-level non-violent offenders.  Obama could (and should) highlight that our criminal justice system generally protects individuals with lots of money (and even perhaps mention OJ Simpson in this discussion), but generally fails to protect those who a less economically advantaged.  Obama could (and should) highlight that California's budget crisis is so severe (and will require cuts in important services to the law abiding) in part because it has perhaps the most dysfunctional criminal justice system in the nation.

January 24, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 13, 2008

An effort to get politicians focused on needed sentencing reforms

Especially with so many states (as well as the feds) struggling with prison and sentencing reform issues, I keep waiting and hoping for the national political dialog to focus more on serious crime and punishment issues.  Helpfully, I see that political folks working elsewhere are making serious efforts to push sentencing reform issues into the political agenda.  Specifically, here's what I learned via e-mail from a helpful person affiliated with Washblog:

With the help of Justice Works! we've been focusing on [Washington's 3-strike law] on Washblog and making an effort to invite incarcerated people and their friends, supporters, and family members to comment.  For example:

And here are more recent posts from Washblog that are specifically seeking to get this issue brought into a broader political dialogue.

As I have highlighted in a number of posts that can be found in this Campaign 2008 category index, crime and punishment issues already have played a little role in the presidential campaign, and I am happy to see others working on sentencing reform trying to get these issues on the nation's agenda.

January 13, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

How the media can do better: ask the candidates tough crime and punishment questions

I am quite pleased that the results in the first state primary Tuesday keeps the presidential nomination battles going strong and that, as Lou Dobbs asserts here, political pundits "took one in the teeth last night" and now the media can and should "summon courage to report on issues." 

Of course, the issues I want to see covered a lot more are criminal justice issues.  Here are just a few challenging questions that I would like to see posed to all the candidates:

1.  What is your view on the faith-based prisons movement and will you increase federal funding for, and research on, faith-based prison and reentry programs?

2.  Do you support the (stalled?) federal Second Chance Act and will you make its passage a priority in the first 100 days of your administration?

3.  What is your perspective on the federal death penalty?  Will you instruct your Attorney General to continue, or to reverse, the recent trend of increased federal capital prosecutions?

4.  Do you support federal mandatory minimum sentences and will you make review and of these laws a priority in the first 100 days of your administration?

5.  Are you troubled by the nationwide increase in incarceration levels at both the state and federal levels?  If so, what might you do as President to reverse prison growth trends?

6.  Can you name all of the Commissioners on the US Sentencing Commission?  (This last one is a gotcha question, but I'd like to see how the candidates would deal with having a Cliff Claven Final Jeopardy moment.)

Readers are, of course, encouraged to suggest additional questions for the candidates in the comments.

January 9, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Monday, January 07, 2008

ACLU urging candidates "to oppose mandatory minimum sentencing"

Perhaps in response to reports that the Clinton campaign team was criticizing Barack Obama's opposition to federal mandatory minimum sentences (details here), the ACLU has issued this new press release titled "ACLU Hopes Candidates Won’t Make Straw Man of Sensible Sentencing Reforms."  Here is how the release begins:

The American Civil Liberties Union Washington Legislative Office, a non-partisan organization, believes Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) was mistaken when she called ending mandatory minimum sentences a controversial position.  The organization urges all candidates, from all parties, to oppose mandatory minimum sentencing and support legislation to close the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine.  The policy of mandatory minimum sentencing has led to thousands of people serving longer jail sentences and has contributed to the unfair sentencing disparities between federal crack and powder cocaine offenses that disproportionately affect people of color.

January 7, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Good news on the violent crime rate

Uscrimestatistics010708As detailed in this AP report, crime "dipped slightly for the first half of 2007, the FBI reported Monday, signaling a stop to a 2-year increase in violence nationwide."  Here are more details:

Violent crime — including murders, rapes and robberies — dropped by 1.8 percent between January and June last year, the FBI's preliminary data show.  Property crimes also decreased, including a 7.4 percent drop in car thefts and arsons by nearly 10 percent.  But violent crime appears to be rising, if slightly, in small cities and rural areas, the data show.

A lot more details are available here from the official FBI website.  It has this great start to this new data: "It’s a good start: in the first six months of 2007, crime rates dropped for the first time in two years.  Nationwide, violent crime fell 1.8 percent and property crime 2.6 percent compared to the same period last year."

January 7, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Terrific review of Obama's criminal justice record

Over at TalkLeft, Jeralyn has this extended post, titled "Obama and Defendants' Rights: Progressive Or Not?", which reviews his record on various criminal justice issue over the past decade.  Here is how Jeralyn describes her review:

Where does Obama stand on criminal justice issues? Is he really a progressive? Will he stand up for the rights of the criminally accused ... or just those of the wrongfully charged or convicted?

He's been quick to point out his admirable work in Illinois getting legislation passed to require mandatory taping of police interrogations and enact some death penalty and racial profiling reforms. He has complained about the racial disparity in crack-powder cocaine sentences and once advocated abolishing mandatory minimums....  More recently, he has retreated to promising a review of mandatory minimum sentences.

Since the mainstream media seems incapable of presenting anything but his words promising change, hope, optimism and a "working majority" (meaning compromise with Republicans), I took an afternoon to research his record going back to 1998.  The results, some progressive and laudatory, others decidedly not, as well as my prior posts on his crime record and statements as U.S. Senator and presidential candidate, are detailed [in this post].

Though not exactly on-point, anyone interested in looking even deeper Obama's professional history should be sure to check out this post at the WSJ Law Bog, titled "Barack Obama Was Once a Lowly Law-Firm Associate."

January 7, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Effective review of politics and prison populations

Writing in the Los Angeles imes, Joe Domanick has this effective op-ed headlined "Prisoners of panic: Media hype and political quick fixes have swelled our inmate population." Here are excerpts:

How much more folly, absurdity, fiscal irresponsibility and human tragedy will we endure before we stop tolerating the political pandering that has dictated our criminal justice law and policy over the last two decades?

The pattern has become all too clear. Our politicians, fearful of being labeled "soft on crime," react to sensationalistic coverage of a crime with knee-jerk, quick-fix answers. Only years later do the mistakes, false assumptions and unexpected consequences begin to emerge, and then the criminal justice system is forced to deal with the mess created by the bad lawmaking....

Today, Californians are still paying the price for [its severe three-strikes laws] and other like-minded laws, not just in the ruined and wasted lives of people sentenced under these laws, but in other ways. There are now tens of thousands of inmates in California convicted of nonviolent crimes and serving out long second- and third-strike sentences, as well as thousands more behind bars because minor crimes were turned into felonies with mandatory minimum sentences.

All these laws have contributed to severe overcrowding in the state's prisons -- as high as 200% of capacity -- that has produced conditions of such "extreme peril" for prisoners and guards that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was forced to declare a systemwide state of emergency in 2006.... A large part of the problem is that the prison population is aging because inmates are serving the longer sentences approved by lawmakers, and with aging comes more medical problems....

Faced with the huge budget deficit and judicial threats to cap the state's prison population, Schwarzenegger's office has been floating the idea of early release for about 22,000 inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes.  That 13% cut in prisoners, however, would require legislative approval, something that is by no means certain. The story of crime and punishment in California -- and the country -- since the 1980s, after all, has been quick-fix answers fueled by media hype.  Let's hope that such proposals as releasing nonviolent inmates receive serious attention rather than panicky headlines that lead to bad criminal justice laws.

January 6, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Clinton campaign assails Obama for advocating against federal mandatory minimums

As David Zlotnick and FAMM have effectively documented here and here, many well-known conservatives and Republican-appointed judges have spoken out forcefully against federal mandatory minimum sentences.  Policy criticisms of mandatory minimum sentences have come from, inter alia, the late Chief Justice Rehnquist, current Seventh Circuit Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook, and former Utah District Judge Paul Cassell, none of whom will ever be accused of having been too liberal for the American public.

However, as now revealed by this ABC News piece discussing Hillary Clinton's efforts to bounce back from her defeat in Iowa, the Clinton campaign team is suggesting that Barack Obama's opposition to federal mandatory minimum sentences makes him too liberal for the Democratic Party's nomination:

Sen. Hillary Clinton went on the counterattack today, one day after a stinging defeat in the Iowa caucuses to Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.  She said New Hampshire voters need to take a hard look at Obama, suggesting that they shouldn't just buy into his message of "hope" without analyzing his policies....

While the senator was vague, her campaign pointed out to ABC News examples of Obama's liberal positions, including his 2004 statement to abolish mandatory minimum sentences for federal crimes.

This story further confirms my concern that Senator Clinton is not just willing, but apparently quite eager, to use the old "soft-on-crime" scare strategy in an effort to swing voters her way.  Such a strategy is extraordinarily disappointing on the merits and telling coming from Senator Clinton now. Moreover, I cannot help but suggest that there is a sniff of racism in the Clinton camp's now repeated efforts to adopt a classic "Willie Horton" tactic in the hope of scaring (mostly white) voters away from a (non-white) candidate because of fear of (mostly minority) offenders subject to extreme prison terms under the old crack guidelines and federal mandatory minimums.

This latest Clintonian move of assailing Obama for once calling for abolition of mandatory minimums provides strong evidence that her campaign has now, in classic pop culture terms, "jumped the shark."

Some recent related posts:

January 5, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Friday, January 04, 2008

A huge win for sentencing hope over fear in Iowa

Though the Iowa caucuses obviously were about a lot more than sentencing law and policy, I cannot resist putting a sentencing spin on the results:

Of course, crime and punishment issues played a very minor part of the Iowa campaign.  But this fact is a itself an important: Clinton's political team, as noted here, last month "said that Obama's support for retroactivity in drug sentences would kill him with tough-on-crime white independents."  But, even though Iowa would presumably have lots of these (mythical?) "tough-on-crime white independents," Obama did pretty well there.  Similarly, Romney clearly thought he could score points with a "soft-on-crime" attack ad going after Huckabee, but the Iowa results suggest that strategy backfired.

As regular readers know, I have long believed that the politics of crime and punishment are much different now than they were in 1988 and 1992 presidential election cycles.  After the 1988 loss and the 1992 win, Democrats concluded that they had to get tough, and this was likely a sound political judgment in light of crime rates and other post-Reagan realities of that era.  But in 2008, a whole lot of voters — especially those under 30 — fear terrorists a lot more than drug dealers, and a message of re-entry hope now sounds a lot better than street crime fear.  (Or perhaps, after having downloaded songs illegally using Napster, and having engaged in "illegal" sex as teenagers, and having enjoyed pot and perhaps other drugs casually, many voters now strongly need to believe that, as President George Bush said in his 2004 State of the Union address, "America is the land of second chance.")

Like so many pundits this morning, I am surely trying to read too much into the votes of a few thousand people in Iowa.  Nevertheless, it seems fair to conclude that "soft-on-crime" attacks failed in Iowa, and I will be watching the campaigns and the results over the next few weeks and months to see if any shrewd strategists recognize that the progressive talk on crime and punishment may not just be possible, but may actually now be essential to political success.

January 4, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (27) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Pardon politics and the 2008 campaign

As all political junkies breathlessly await tonights results from Iowa, I figure it is a good time to speculate about whether there will be continued attention to pardons and other clemency issues as the 2008 campaign unfolds.  Of course, the go-to place for a pardon focus is P.S. Ruckman's blog, and here has these notable recent posts focused on the Republican candidates' kerfufling over clemency issues:

Relatedly, there are some quite notable defendants whose possible pardon could readily create campaign political debates.  Lewis Libby, of course, comes to mind.  Also, as detailed in this new commentary, folks are still calling for pardons for the former Border Agents.  Here is the start of that commentary: "Before leaving the White House, President Bush should do the right thing and pardon the two Border Patrol agents who were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for shooting a fleeing drug smuggler — a case that's been called a 'prosecutorial travesty.'"  I wonder if and when during a debate the candidates will be asked if they will grant a pardon to the Border Agents if Prez Bush fails to do so before leaving office.

January 3, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues, Clemency and Pardons, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Interesting commentary on 2008 politics of death

Writing at Slate, Niko Karvounis has this real interesting commentary entitled "Capital Opportunity: Democrats could safely champion death-penalty reform—why aren't they?". Here are excerpts:

This is the first election in 20 years in which the death penalty isn't a go-to issue for conservatives. For a generation, Republican candidates wielded their fondness for executions like a weapon, and Democrats either summoned their own righteous bloodlust and embraced capital punishment, or avoided the subject altogether. But the Bush years have witnessed a steady shift in how Americans perceive the death penalty, and this time around, it's the last thing Republicans want to talk about. And yet, faced with an opportunity to seize the high ground in a debate they've been losing for decades, the Democrats can't summon the nerve. So, 2008 could go down in history as the year the Democrats had the chance to confront the death penalty—and didn't....

Death-penalty skepticism is so widespread that Clinton, Obama, or Edwards would hardly be going out on a limb if they made it a platform.  This year, executions reached a 13-year low, the Supreme Court geared up to examine lethal injection, and earlier this month New Jersey became the first state in 40 years to abolish the death penalty.  And yet the candidates aren't biting.  Part of the explanation is that Iraq and terrorism have become the new arena in which Democrats must prove their mettle.  Another concern may be that so long as 47 percent of Americans support the death penalty, advocating reform is still too risky. But Democrats say that they represent moral leadership and a force for change. That doesn't square with staying quiet about the death penalty until it's universally loathed. And with the race in the primary so close, candidates should be eager to distinguish themselves from their opponents while playing to the base (Democrats are far more likely to oppose the death penalty than are Republicans).

Curiously, the best explanation for the Democrats' reticence on this issue may be the remarkable decrease in crime of recent decades. Only 3 percent of Americans think crime is one of the top two problems facing the nation today, and while that should make it an ideal time to do away with the death penalty — because scare tactics can't be easily exploited — it's actually having the opposite effect. Americans may know that the death penalty's not working. They just don't care enough to insist that something be done about it.  And for all of their talk about new forms of leadership, the Democratic candidates aren't going to waste air time or political capital trying to change that. The stage is set for a Democratic candidate to do the right thing on the death penalty, but none of them has the nerve.  They might just be wimps after all.

I am not sure I agree with all the analysis in the commentary, but it serves to highlight an issue that will be lurking around the campaigns in 2008.  With the Baze lethal injection case to be argued in just over a week, and with a Supreme Court decision likely around convention time, the candidates on both sides are unlikely to be able to avoid death penalty talk throughout the election season.

December 29, 2007 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Why is Huckabee now trying to seem tough rather than compassionate?

This piece from the Quad-City Times reveals that Mike Huckabee in trying to talk tough now that Mitt Romney has attacked him for his clemency record:

During an appearance Friday in Davenport, Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee confronted criticisms he was soft on criminals while governor of Arkansas, pointing out he’s the only one in the race who’s put people to death.

“If somebody tries to tell you that I’m soft on crime, that would be real news to the 16 people whose executions I carried out,” Huckabee told a packed room during a campaign swing through eastern Iowa. “They didn’t think I was being very soft.”

I find this response extremely disappointing given that, as this new New York Times piece highlights, Baptist minister Huckabee has risen "to the first tier of Republican presidential candidates on the strength of his Christian bona fides."  Wouldn't it be more fitting, given his campaign themes, for Huckabee to say that he genuinely believes in the human potential for redemption and that he used his clemency power to help those who seemed to achieve genuine rehabilitation after criminal transgressions? 

As the faith-based prison and re-entry movement highlights, religion and progressive criminal justice policies can fit together quite well.  Moreover, I believe a truly compassionate conservative would not only grant a lot of clemencies, but also look for ways to reduce spending on "big government" criminal punishments that may produce more human suffering than societal benefits. 

Significantly, as this new Houston Chronicle article details, religious beliefs and concerns about fairness apparently were central to Huckabee's clemency record as Governor:

Driven by a religious belief in redemption and questions about the state's legal system, Huckabee paid close attention to clemency petitions, former aides said.  He insisted on reviewing every single application, though they came in by the hundreds most months.  "He would take these files home with him to the governor's mansion," recalled Rex Nelson, Huckabee's communications director for nine years. "He would read them, study them.  He took it very seriously, the political consequences be damned."

Most of Huckabee's clemency decisions were unremarkable; in the vast majority of cases he simply followed the recommendation of the Arkansas Parole Board.  But in a small though significant number of cases, he commuted prison sentences for murderers and other violent criminals over the pleas of victims' families, prosecutors and judges.  As his reputation for granting clemency spread, applications surged. "We had tons of them," said Cory Cox, who worked for several years as Huckabee's aide in charge of clemency matters.  "People, they'd call and say, 'Please, let the governor look at this. We don't know who the next governor is going to be.'"

By every account, Huckabee's approach to clemency was heavily influenced by his religious beliefs.  As John Wesley Hall, a Little Rock defense lawyer who filed numerous clemency petitions with the Huckabee administration, put it: "He's a Baptist preacher who believes in redemption and second chances." 

But it also reflected Huckabee's broader concerns about the criminal justice system in Arkansas, one of the few states where juries rather than judges impose sentences, which defense lawyers say can produce arbitrary results.  Dana Reece, another defense lawyer, told of one client who received a life sentence for selling six grams of crack cocaine. "He'd still be in prison today if it weren't for Governor Huckabee," Reece said. "How many politicians, she asked, would stick their necks out for a crack dealer?" 

"This was a political hot potato, and he knew it," Cox said of his former boss. "But he had a conviction that people could better themselves, and he was open-minded to the idea that a poor black man from east Arkansas convicted by an all-white jury just may have been a victim of injustice."

It is sad and ironic that Huckabee was willing to "walk the walk" as a compassionate conservative when Governor of Arkansas, but now he seems to be afraid to "talk the talk."  Not only is this a shame for the broader political conversation, it might backfire on Huckabee.  Remember how well it worked in 1988when Mike Dukakis tried to look tough by driving a tank.

Some related posts:

December 22, 2007 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Democratic candidates on crime and punishment

At TalkLeft, Jeralyn has this great post previewing an article to appear in a forthcoming issue of EbonyJet Magazine.  The article has interviews with Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama and Bill Richardson on their crime and punishment agendas if elected President.  Surf over to TalkLeft to get a taste of an article that I'll likely blog more about when it becomes available fee on-line.

December 15, 2007 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Is Senator Clinton to the right of Justice Scalia on sentencing issues?

As detailed here and here and here, I have been predicting throughout 2007 that crime and punishment issues would find a way into the Obama/Clinton battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.  And this new post at The suggests that the Clinton campaign thinks its "tough-on-crime" approach will help defeat Obama, although these excerpts highlight some nuanced realities: 

Campaign aides have said that Obama's support for retroactivity in drug sentences would kill him with tough-on-crime white independents.  But the Supreme Court, in a 7 to 2 decision yesterday that included Antonin Scalia, endorsed the view that judges could ignore sentencing guidelines when handing down prison terms for distributing crack versus powder cocaine, and a Bush administration panel today voted seven to nothing to impose retroactivity....

The approach carries risk.  Polls show that Clinton is judged to be running the most negative campaign of all the Democrats, and if voters come to perceive her campaign as being in attack mode, her own favorability ratings could suffer.

As I have stressed in prior posts, I think Senator Clinton's approach to retroactivity is not just "negative," but extraordinary harmful to having a sober and balanced national conversation about crime and sentencing. 

To their great credit, Justice Scalia and Chief Justice Roberts (and also Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, Breyer and even Alito) have all contributed recently to help create a more balanced dialogue on these important issues.  I ultimately trust other so-called "tough-on-crime white independents" to understand that it is not always good to give prosecutors extreme power in the criminal justice system.  Indeed, in the wake of the Scooter Libby prosecution, the Border Agents severe sentencing and the Duke lacrosse scandal, I am hopeful that all voters are coming to understand that everyone, not just poor minorities, can suffer from inadequate checks and balances in the operation of criminal justice systems.

Some related prior posts:

December 12, 2007 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (24) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Apparently now's the time to talk about Huckabee's "Willie Horton"

Way back in March in this post, I highlighted the sentencing story within this fascinating Salon piece discussing the prospects of Republican candidate Mike Huckabee.  That story discussed Huckabee's "willie Horton" problem in the form of Wayne Dumond, a rapist paroled in Arkansas when Huckabee was governor who murdered a woman after being released.   Perhaps because Huckabee continues to rise in the polls, this story is now garnering new nation attention.  Byron York explains in this new item from the National Review Online:

In August, I interviewed former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee about the case of Wayne Dumond, the convicted rapist who was freed under Huckabee’s administration, only to rape and kill a woman in neighboring Missouri. The crime attracted enormous attention in Arkansas, but at the time of our interview, it had not made its way into much coverage of Huckabee’s presidential bid. “If [Huckabee] continues to rise in the polls,” I wrote, “it’s likely he’ll be talking about it a lot more.”

Now Huckabee is rising in the polls, and sure enough, the Dumond case is attracting more attention. This morning, ABC News ran a report featuring the mother of the woman Dumond murdered, who blames Huckabee for her daughter’s death and vows to do everything she can to stop his campaign. “I can’t imagine anybody wanting somebody like that running the country,” the woman told ABC.

The story seems to be developing from many angles, and here's additional coverage from Murray Waas at The Huffington PostThis item at Monsters and simply asks "Is Wayne Dumond Huckabee's Willie Horton?"

December 5, 2007 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (22) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

More questions about Clinton's opposition to crack guideline retroactivity

This post at the Drug War Chronicle blog asks "Is Rudy Giuliani Shaping Hillary Clinton's Stance on Drug Laws?".  The post notes that Clinton's team has defended her opposition to the new crack guidelines being retroactive by citing Giuliani's apparently similar position.  Here is the potent end to the potent post:

We must now ask ourselves to what extent Hillary's other drug policy positions have been shaped by Rudiphobia.  When she raised her hand in opposition to marijuana decrim, was that for real? Was there a little Giuliani in a devil suit whispering in her ear, threatening to tell the swing voters what a hippie she is?   Will she backtrack on medical marijuana and needle exchange if Giuliani says he disapproves?

We can spend eternity smashing minority communities with our drug war hammers at the behest of authoritarian demagogues like Rudy Giuliani. And if no one speaks up, that's exactly what will happen.  So if Giuliani wants to publicly embrace racist drug war politics, let him.  The antidote to the "soft on drugs" label is to stop looking over your shoulder and start speaking with conviction.

Some recent related posts:

UPDATE:  I now see that Celeste Fremon has picked up on this issue in this post at The Huffington Post.  I will remain intriguing to see if this issue continue to have traction since, as detailed in this item from Politico, suggesting that "one of Clinton's real vulnerabilities [is the] perception that she's driven by polls, not conviction."

December 4, 2007 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues, New USSC crack guidelines and report | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Monday, December 03, 2007

Seeking to clear up Clintonian confusion on crack retroactivity

In the wake of crack retroactivity discussion by the Democratic presidential candidates, the ACLU has issued this new press release to "correct misconceptions about retroactivity."  Here are excerpts:

  • All offenders would first have to go before a court to have their case reviewed and argue that they are fit to be freed.  People would not automatically be released from prison. Offenders who qualify for release under the new guidelines would have to appear before a judge, who would make the decision as to whether the person should be released from prison.

The following can be attributed to ACLU Legislative Counsel Jesselyn McCurdy:  "The USSC changed the crack cocaine sentencing guidelines last month because the commission realized they were unfair. It makes no sense to call a law unjust and in the same breath say it should still apply.  Retroactivity doesn’t mean prisoners will be released en masse; it means the mistakes in sentencing that have gone unchecked for decades will be corrected. Prisoners arrested for federal crack cocaine offenses who have served their time should serve only their time."

Though the press release does not fully explain who may be responsible for "misconceptions about retroactivity," it is obvious that Hillary Clinton is the chief culprit.  As previously discussed here, Clinton this past weekend echoed comments by President Bush's Justice Department (noted here) and Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee (noted here) when indicating she is against retroactive application of the USSC's new crack guidelines.

I am pleased to see the ACLU trying to make sure facts and not fear drive this important sentencing reform discussion.  I hope other sentencing reform groups like FAMM and The Sentencing Project will follow suit.

December 3, 2007 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues, New USSC crack guidelines and report | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Sunday, December 02, 2007

A retroactive litmus test on leading Democratic candidates

anIf this blog post from The Atlantic Online is accurate, it confirms my deep concerns about how Hillary Clinton would approach crime and punishment issues as president.  The post is titled "Clinton, Obama, Edwards Differ On Retroactivity," and it reports that "Clinton opposes [retroactivity of the USSC's new crack amendments], and Edwards and Obama support it."

So, assuming this is accurate, let's review the line-up: the prominent opponents to retroactivity for the new USSC guidelines are President Bush's Justice Department (noted here), Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee (noted here), and now Senator Hillary Clinton.

As I have detailed in prior posts (some of which are linked below), I have long been troubled by the Clinton "brand" when it comes to criminal sentencing issues.  But, of course, most of the troublesome record on these issues involved decisions by Hillary's husband.  Now, assuming this blog report is accurate, we have a very strong basis to believe that Hillary herself favors tough-on-crime rhetoric over sound sentencing policy.  Now who should be accused of taking a page out of the Republican play book?

Some recent posts on crack guideline retroactivity issues:

Some recent posts on sentencing politics in the 2008 campaign:

UPDATE:  I now see that this item at Politico has more on this story.  Here are some telling details:

Clinton, who said she supports a federal recommendation for shorter sentences for some people caught with crack cocaine, opposed making those shorter sentences retroactive — which could eventually result in the early release of 20,000 people convicted on drug charges.  "In principle I have problems with retroactivity," she said. "It's something a lot of communities will be concerned about as well." 

In an interview after the debate, Clinton's pollster, Mark Penn, pointed out that the Republican front-runner has already signaled that he will attack Democrats on releasing people convicted of drug crimes.

Her five rivals present on stage — Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich — all said they favor making the shorter sentences retroactive.

"Rudy Giuliani is already going after the issue," Penn said. "He's already starting to attack Democrats, claiming it will release 20,000 convicted drug dealers."

So, besides suggesting that Hillary Clinton gets her crime and punishment ideas from the Giuliani campaign, this issue ought to help Democratic primary voters who care about principled sentencing reform know that not all the candidates are the same.  (I am now wondering if keep prison populations growing is part of Hillary's universal health-care plan.)

MORE:  I am pleased to see TalkLeft picking up this story, calling Clinton's position "a huge disappointment."  I also see MyDD has this post saying that "Hillary's position is really astonishing."  I hope other prominent political bloggers will keep on this important issue which provides, at least for me, a great litmus test on true principle versus (mis-perceived) political pragmatism.

December 2, 2007 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Candidates asked "what would Jesus do" about the death penalty

Though I did not get a chance to watch the YouTube/CNN Republican debate last night, I saw highlights of the clip in which a young person asked the self-proclaimed Christian conservatives to answer the question "what would Jesus do" about the death penalty.  This entry from the Chicago Tribune's political blog provides more details on the question and the evasive answers given by two candidates.  When pressed for an answer, Mike Huckabee said "Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office.  That's what Jesus would do." 

Because I find the intersection of religion and politics very interesting, I was sorry to hear that not all the candidates had to respond to this question.  (The great irony, of course, is that Jesus himself was subject to the death penalty, a point that I do not think was mentioned.)

Some related posts on victims, religion and the death penalty:

November 29, 2007 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (24) | TrackBack

Monday, November 12, 2007

Obama, the death penalty and presidential politics

This new post at TalkLeft, which spotlights this new AP article headlined "Obama Cites Death Penalty Reforms," has me thinking again about how capital punishment issues could become significant during the primary and general election seasons.  First, a snippet from the AP article:

Barack Obama can honestly claim to have made a difference on a matter of life and death.  While an Illinois state senator, Obama was key in getting the state's notorious death penalty laws changed, including a requirement that in most cases police interrogations involving capital crimes must be recorded.

The changes enacted in 2003 reformed a system that had sent 13 people to death row, only to have them released because they were later determine to be innocent or had been convicted using improper methods. "Without Barack's energy, imagination and commitment I do not believe the very substantial and meaningful reforms that became law in Illinois would have taken place," said author Scott Turow, a member of the state commission that recommended many of the changes.

Obama often cites his role in Illinois death penalty debate as evidence that he can resolve thorny issues through compromise. "We brought police officers and civil rights advocates together to reform a death penalty system that had sent 13 innocent men to death row," he declare in a recent presidential debate. Enactment of the 2003 law was a huge political achievement in a state that had been deeply divided over problems with capital punishment. Obama was at the center of the emotional debate.

Legislators and lobbyists who worked with him describe a lawmaker who was personally involved, refused to abandon some needed changes but also demanded compromises from both law enforcement and death penalty critics.

A proposal to require that police record interrogations of murder suspects was opposed by police, prosecutors and the Democratic governor and considered so touchy it was separated from other legislation. It also was the issue that garnered Obama's special interest. "I thought the prosecutors and law enforcement would kill it," said Peter Baroni, who was then a Republican aide to the Illinois Senate's judiciary committee. "He (Obama) was the one who kept people at the table." In the end, police organizations supported the recording mandate, and the measure passed the Senate unanimously.

Second, a little personal analysis: if Obama plays this issue right, it could be a real plus in setting up the broader theme that he can be a principled and effective "good government" moderate.  As I have suggested before, neither the Clinton record nor the Romney record on the death penalty make them look very good.  Moreover, the death penalty is likely to be in the news a lot with the Baze case before the Supreme Court.

Indeed, if Obama was really clever, he might even consider proposing federal legislation calling for the development of new and improved national execution protocol.  Though such a proposal, Obama could say that it is important to have a humane and thoughtful review of these issues, and yet he could also assert that this is really a policy/practice issue that ought to be addressed by legislators and not judges.  Along the way, he could beat up the bush Administration for talking tough and yet agreeing to unexplained stays for the federal prisoners scheduled to be executed.

Some related posts:

November 12, 2007 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Perceptive public perceptions and political opportunities

A helpful reader pointed me to some recent Gallup poll results concerning public perception of crime rates and drug problems.  Here are links and highlights from these recent polls:

On crime, this Gallup poll report is headlined "Perceptions of Crime Problem Remain Curiously Negative: More see crime worsening rather than improving."  This Gallup report makes much of the fact that "Americans have a decidedly negative outlook about crime" even though overall crime rates "have generally leveled off at extremely low numbers."  But, Gallup's poll question asked about perceptions of crime in the last year, and the latest FBI yearly report shows a roughly 2% increase in violent crime.

On drugs, this Gallup poll report is headlined "Little Change in Public's View of the U.S. Drug Problem: More than 7 in 10 Americans say nation's drug problem is very serious."   This Gallup report details that "the vast majority of Americans [are] saying the problem of illegal drugs in the United States is very serious," but "only about one in three Americans [believe that government efforts have] made progress in this area."

Beyond being impressed with the public's perceptiveness, these result would appear to present real political opportunities for those interested in sounder crime and sentencing policies.  Read together, these polls suggest that the public is primarily concerned with violent crimes and that most Americans view the government's use of harsh sentences in the "war on drugs" to be a failure.  In turn, the public ought to be very receptive to campaigns that promise dramatic reductions in sentences for non-violent drug offenders so that resources could be more effectively concentrated on (a) drug treatment programs, and (b) police and correctional resources devoted to preventing and responding to violent crimes and offenders.

Some related posts:

October 24, 2007 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Mitt Romney, a foolproof death penalty system, and tinkering with the machinery of death

I had a chance to talk with a reporter today about whether the Baze case and broader capital punishment issues might become a topic in the 2008 election campaign.  While saying "anything is possible" when it comes to the politics of the death penalty, I was reminded of the interesting encounter that candidate Mitt Romney had with death penalty politics when governor of Massachusetts.

As noted in my very first blog post, back in 2004 then-Governor Romney created by an 11-member death penalty commission to attempt to establish a nearly "foolproof" death penalty system for Massachusetts.  That committee produced a very interesting report --- which, intriguingly, is no longer easily accessible on-line [Update: S.cotus found the report] --- that became a Romney-backed bill for bringing the death penalty back to the Bay State.  However, as this amazing article from the Boston Phoenix highlights, Romney's capital punishment bill proved to be an extraordinary political disaster.  (The full title of the Boston Phoenix article is "The sudden death of Romney's dream: What once seemed like a clever ploy has become a political and policy disaster for the governor.")

Could Romney's bad experience with capital punishment politics in part explain why none of the presidential candidates have so far said boo about all the recent lethal injection controversies?

October 18, 2007 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, September 28, 2007

Obama talking about serious sentencing reform

As detailed in a number of posts below, I have been wondering about when some of the presidential candidates would start talking seriously about sentencing reform.  According to this press release, which is entitled "Obama Outlines Plan to Address Disparities in America's Justice System," today is the day for Barack Obama.

Obama is giving a speech at Howard University, and the press release details these notable feature's of Obama's plan for "ensuring that every citizen is afforded equal and fair justice under the law":

With last week's Jena 6 march and next week's SCOTUS argument in Kimbrough, the timing for this speech seems just right.  It will be especially interesting to see what sort of national reception it gets and whether these issues have any long-term traction.

UPDATE:  A lengthy 7-page official document from the Obama campaign covering a range of equal justice issues can be accessed at this link.

September 28, 2007 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (43) | TrackBack

Friday, September 14, 2007

Lawyer-presidents and future sentencing reforms

Over at Law School Innovation, Anupam Chander has this new post highlighting that "the three leading candidates for President in both parties are all lawyers."  (This recent USA Today article covers similar ground.)  Of course, this factiod has me thinking about which of the lawyer-president-wannabes would be most likely to champion sound sentencing reforms. 

Our last few lawyer-presidents — Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Bill Clinton — have hardly had inspiring records on various criminal justice issues, and I have noted some of my gripes with Clinton's sentencing record in some posts linked below.  That said, Rudy Giuliani has called at least one federal guideline sentence "grossly excessive" (when discussing Scooter Libby's original prison term), and Barack Obama has indicated an interest in "expert evidence" concerning sentencing reform (though in comments suggesting he is oblivious to the work of the US Sentencing Commission), and Fred Thompson has recent criminal justice experience (though this comes from pretending to be a DA on Law & Order). 

Sarcastic comments aside, I wonder if any readers have thoughts on how a single-issue sentencing voter ought to sort through the crowded field of presidential candidates.

Some related posts on sentencing politics:

September 14, 2007 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, March 09, 2007

Candidate Huckabee's crime and punishment skeleton

As regular readers know, I am already following the 2008 presidential campaign with an eye focused on crime and punishment issues.  Thus, I was pleased when an old friend sent me this fascinating Salon piece discussing the prospects of Republican candidate Mike Huckabee.  Though the whole article is a great read, this is the passage that should really intrugue sentencing fans:

By far, Huckabee's most glaring mistake goes by the name of Wayne DuMond, a paroled rapist who murdered a woman after being released.  DuMond's story is Southern Gothic, the Dukes of Hazzard meets John Grisham.  He was a Vietnam veteran with a violent past and six children. In 1984, he was accused of raping a high school student in Forrest City, Ark., a town named for a founder of the Ku Klux Klan.  The student happened to be a distant cousin of then-Gov. Bill Clinton, and the daughter of an influential local mortician. While DuMond was awaiting trial, two men broke into his home, hogtied and castrated him. The local sheriff, Coolidge Conlee, later displayed the testicles, floating in formaldehyde, for visitors to his office.

A mangled DuMond was eventually sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole. But the distant Clinton affiliation soon turned his case into a cause.  Right-wing radio hosts and columnists decried the severe sentence. They raised questions about the lack of DNA evidence, and railed against the small-town justice system, which never prosecuted DuMond's attackers.  During the 1992 presidential campaign, while Clinton was traveling out of state, Tucker commuted DuMond's sentence to allow for the possibility of parole.  When Huckabee became governor, he publicly announced that he intended to commute DuMond's sentence to time served. "My desire is that you be released from prison," he wrote DuMond in a letter. Before Huckabee signed any papers, the state parole board approved the prisoner's release. Two years later, DuMond murdered a woman in Missouri and later died in jail.

The case presents Huckabee with a clear problem, along the lines of Willie Horton, the furloughed rapist who helped sink the 1988 campaign of Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis.  The attack ad almost writes itself: Huckabee, egged on by right-wingers, worked to free a rapist who murdered again.  When I bring up the issue, the former Baptist minister becomes defensive and tries to place the blame elsewhere. "Jim Guy Tucker commuted this guy's sentence to make him parole eligible," Huckabee says, as we sit in the back of the minivan. "Clinton knew it, Tucker did it, and now they try to blame me for it." In 2002, several members of the parole board told the Arkansas Times that the governor had actively advocated for DuMond's release behind the scenes. Huckabee calls this a lie, but he acknowledges he made a public appeal for the parole. "And I certainly regret that, in light of what happened," he says.

But the DuMond debacle also provides a window into Huckabee's approach as he begins his run for president. He has refused to take the predictable path by talking tough on crime to deflect the DuMond criticism. Instead, he campaigns on a compassionate approach to wrongdoers, especially those whose crimes are the result of drug or alcohol addiction.  At Philly's Finest, he condemned the "revenge-based corrections system," sounding every bit the sort of squishy liberal that the Bill O'Reillys of the world long ago scared into the shadows. "We lock up a lot of people we are mad at rather than the ones we are really afraid of," he said.  "We incarcerate more people than anybody on earth."  As governor, Huckabee pushed for drug treatment instead of incarceration for nonviolent offenders.  He pushed for faith-based prison programs, and was critical of governors who "gladly pull the switch" on death penalty cases, an apparent knock on President Bush, who was criticized as governor of Texas for being cavalier about capital punishment.

March 9, 2007 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Will sentencing issues surface in the Clinton-Obama battle for black votes?

This front-page New York Times article, entitled "Recalling Civil Rights, Democrats Seek Black Votes," spotlights that the democratic race for the 2008 presidential nomination is creating "one of the most competitive scrambles for black supporters since the Voting Rights Act was passed four decades ago."  In the article, a Clinton adviser says "African-Americans historically align with people based on issues, not personality," and that has me thinking about criminal justice issues in the Clinton-Obama battle for black votes.

As I noted here a weeks ago, neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama has spoken directly on many crime and punishment issues, but there are plenty of back stories in light of their personal and professional history.  Moreover, I think some bold statements about felon disenfranchisement or the crack/powder disparity or the death penalty could really catch the attention of black voters, many of whom are aware and greatly concerned about the racial skew in the operation of state and federal criminal justice systems.  And yet, as Hillary's husband recognized, being tougher on these issues, not being more progressive, seems to be the key to scoring political points with white voters.

For reasons emphasized in some posts listed below, these issues will be worth watching closely in the months ahead:

March 4, 2007 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Clinton and Obama, crime and punishment

This intriguing New York Times front-page article on Barack Obama's time at Harvard Law School (my alma mater) got me to thinking about how the two front-runners for the Democratic presidential nomination might approach crime and punishment issues.  To my knowledge, neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama has spoken directly and specifically on many crime and punishment issues (and I could not find much on their presidential sites here and here).  But there are plenty of back stories to consider:

Meanwhile, while everyone gear up for next year's primaries, there will likely be some notable crime and punishment debates in Congress.  This recent NY Times article predicted hearings on federal mandatory minimum sentencing terms and on the crack/powder disparity.  Also, there will surely be a new round of federal sentencing debate after the Supreme Court's decision Claiborne and Rita in June. 

Will either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama be a leader in crime and punishment debates in the Senate this year?  Or, as I tentatively predict, will they both avoid discussing crime and punishment issues for a long as possible?  (Notably, neither Hillary or Barack signed the peculiar Senators' amicus brief in Claiborne and Rita. I wonder if they were asked?)

January 28, 2007 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack