Dems Debate Sentencing Reform and Mandatory Minimums
Via Sentencing Law and Policy, I see that at the Democratic debate on Saturday night at Howard University, the candidates spent six minutes on sentencing reform and mandatory minimum sentences.
The Sentencing Project reports:
Democratic Forum, the first of the All-American Presidential Forums broadcast on PBS and hosted by Tavis Smiley, addressed the issues of mandatory minimum sentencing and racial disparity in the nation's criminal justice system Thursday. Hosted at Howard University in Washington, D.C., the forum focused on crime and punishment as one of eight topics presented to the Democratic candidates.
Rep. Kucinich first brought up the need to eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing when asked about the disparate rate of incarceration, because "We know who's serving those mandatory minimums."
Several candidates addressed the need for reform of federal crack cocaine sentencing laws, including Sen. Joseph Biden, who this week introduced the Drug Sentencing Reform & Cocaine Kingpin Trafficking Act of 2007 which would eliminate the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity.
Shorter version: Kucinich has always seen the light. Hillary and Edwards have made major shifts in the right direction, kudos to them. Richardson disappoints and is the only candidate to evade the question.
As to specifics, here's what each of them said.
REP. KUCINICH: As president, I’ll have an attorney general who’s going to be sensitive to the very issues that you raised. First of all, we need to seek to end mandatory minimums. (Applause.) We know who’s serving those mandatory minimums. Second, we need to have the emphasis, with respect to drug offenses, on rehabilitation, not incarceration. And third, as president, I’ll do anything I can to end the federal death penalty, which I’ve already introduced legislation for in the past. (Applause.) Because we need to have an approach that recognizes the discrimination which exists in our justice system.
SEN. DODD: Well, I agree -- I think the mandatory minimum sentencing has been a disaster. I’m a strong supporter of Charlie Rangel’s efforts here to eliminate the distinction between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. (Applause.) That’ll have a big difference in terms of who actually goes to jail in this country.
And then obviously, as well, we need to have a Justice Department that is not going to be politicized, as we’ve watched this one, with U.S. attorneys who do the political work rather than doing the justices’ work in our country. As president, I will insist upon that. I’m sure the rest of my colleagues would here. We’ll get better justice with Democrats in the White House.
SEN. CLINTON: In order to tackle this problem, we have to do all of these things.
Number one, we do have to go after racial profiling. I’ve supported legislation to try to tackle that.
Number two, we have to go after mandatory minimums. You know, mandatory sentences for certain violent crimes may be appropriate, but it has been too widely used. And it is using now a discriminatory impact.
Three, we need diversion, like drug courts. Non-violent offenders should not be serving hard time in our prisons. They need to be diverted from our prison system. (Applause.)
We need to make sure that we do deal with the distinction between crack and powder cocaine. And ultimately we need an attorney general and a system of justice that truly does treat people equally, and that has not happened under this administration. (Applause.)
MR. EDWARDS: Tavis, I -- everything that’s been said is correct, you know -- changing mandatory minimum, changing the disparity between crack and powder cocaine, having a system that’s fair. If you’re African-American, you’re more likely to be charged with a crime. If you’re charged with a crime, you’re more likely to be convicted of the crime. If you’re convicted of the crime, you’re more likely to get a severe sentence. There is no question that our justice system is not color-blind.
But can we also create an infrastructure for success for those who are charged and convicted for the first time, so that we help them with drug counseling, job counseling, job training, education -- (applause) -- help them get the back -- back into the community with some chance of changing their lives.
SEN. BIDEN: As you well know, the bulk of the inequity’s at the state level, not at the federal level, number one.
Number two, we need diversion out of the system. I’m the guy that wrote the drug court legislation that is in the law right now.
Number three, you have to eliminate the disparity between crack and powdered cocaine. I’ve introduced legislation to do that, one to one, no difference.
And number four, you have to find a way in which you insist from a federal level that the states in fact apply the law equally -- they don’t -- through the Speedy Trial Act. The states -- 650,000 people coming out of the jail in the state prisons --Three hundred thousand will come out addicted from the prison this year.
SEN. OBAMA: That the criminal justice system is not color blind. It does not work for all people equally, and that is why it’s critical to have a president who sends a signal that we are going to have a system of justice that is not just us, but is everybody. (Applause.) And -- you know, this is something that I’ve got a track record working on at the state level, where a lot of the criminal justice issues come up.
That’s why I passed racial profiling legislation at the state level. That’s why I passed legislation to make sure that we didn’t have wrongful convictions.
GOV. RICHARDSON: Carved at the marble top of the U.S. Supreme Court it says, "Equal justice under law." This country has had 200 years. Yet today 68 percent of those in jail are minorities.
In your own book, Tavis, you say that one out of three African- American males spends some time in jail. That is wrong.
And what we need is a strategy to deal with poverty. Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. Increase the minimum wage. Have a living wage in this country. Find ways to expand child care. Find ways also to let Americans join a union. This will not only give them more health care but more accountability and the ability to protect themselves.
The question they were asked:
According to FBI data, blacks were roughly 29 percent of persons arrested in this country between 1996 and 2005. Whites were 70 percent of people arrested during this period. Yet at the end of this 10-year period, whites were 40 percent of those who were inmates in this country, and blacks were approximately 38 percent. What does this data suggest to you?
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