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.

The entire transcript is here and the sentencing issue portion begins here. You can watch the segment here.

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.

Dennis Kucinich:

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.

Chris Dodd:

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.

Hillary Clinton:

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.)

John Edwards:

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.

Joe Biden:

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.

Barack Obama:

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.

Bill Richardson:

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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  • Display: Sort:
    Feingold (none / 0) (#1)
    by Ben Masel on Sun Jul 01, 2007 at 04:25:54 PM EST
    My junior Senator had promised, when up for re-election 3 years ago, to take on Mandatory Minimums in his current term in office. In view of the Pres. Candidates' remarks Thursday, I took advantage of seeing him at the State Democratic Convention to suggest  the time is right. He hadn't seen the debate, and seemed suprised to hear Sen. Clinton was now behind repeal ("are you sure?")

    I expect he'll be introducing a bill shortly, unless House Judiciary beats him to it.

    a state of emergency (none / 0) (#2)
    by Sumner on Sun Jul 01, 2007 at 05:05:24 PM EST
    Oh it is far worse than that.

    We may need a Constitutional Amendment to purge these federal judges.

    I am working on a report about minorities (none / 0) (#3)
    by JSN on Sun Jul 01, 2007 at 06:44:05 PM EST
    our county jail. The main findings so far are
    1. Blacks (African-Americans) are about three times as likely as Whites to be booked into jail.
    2. Blacks are twice as likely to be detained.
    3. About a third of the Blacks have multiple bookings (about one every 4 months) where only one sixth of the Whites have multiple bookings.
    4. The B/W ration for average length of confinement varies widely by offense class and type with no obvious racial dependence but on average it appears the Blacks are held longer than the Whites (perhaps 1.5 times as long).
    5. Blacks who are detained are most likely to be charged with crimes against persons, property or some type of violation (parole, probation or non contact order). Whites detained are most likely to be charged  crimes against public order and persons.
    6. The Blacks and Whites held more than three weeks are very likely to be sent or returned to prison.
    7. It appears that the Blacks and Whites detained are poor people who live in the the same low income housing projects.

    There is no obvious reason that a jail should have the same  demographics as the county. In our county between 95% to 98% of the residents have never been in jail and are unlikely to ever be in jail and some of our jail inmates are not county residents.

    The Criminal Justice System which is supposed to be color blind is producing a racially biased outcome. If you review the process carefully it is not designed to be racially biased but it turns out instead to be biased against the poor and race and poverty are highly correlated.

    Limited hangouts isn't what's needed (none / 0) (#4)
    by Yes2Truth on Sun Jul 01, 2007 at 07:04:47 PM EST

    I realize that many readers here are lawyers, and
    some are criminal defense lawyers who represent people charged with narcotics violations.

    However, if any of you are afraid to support ending the war on drugs because of fear of loss of income from representing drug law violators, I think that's an unfounded fear.  

    There are plenty of citizens accused of all kinds of things and new laws are passed every day, so there'll always be plenty of potential clients.

    You may have to do some marketing in order to attract a new client base, but you'll probably end up earning even more money if you do.

    Edwards has been against mandatory (none / 0) (#5)
    by okamichan13 on Mon Jul 02, 2007 at 06:23:37 PM EST
    minimums since at least 2004:

    "I support greater emphasis on drug treatment and elimination of mandatory minimums for certain non-violent crimes. I also support reform of our probation and parole systems to provide more support and supervision."

    Richardson (none / 0) (#6)
    by diogenes on Mon Jul 02, 2007 at 08:07:06 PM EST
    Richardson is enlightened on pot.  Therefore, if he is evasive about this idea it might be because he, unlike the others, has actually run a state before.

    He was asked about prisons and drugs (none / 0) (#7)
    by JSN on Mon Jul 02, 2007 at 08:43:40 PM EST
    when he was in Iowa City last week and my recollection was that his answers were better than the ones he used in the forum.

    Unfortunately I can not quote him even though John Deeth was doing a real time transcript. At the point Richardson was over his allotted time and he was talking very fast so John could not keep up.

    I looked up the New Mexico Department of Corrections web page an it appears that all Richardson was able to do as governor was to slow the prison growth rate a little. Depending how you do that it can be good or bad. I suspect his views about corrections are band-aid-it and move on.