Obama Wavers on Crack-Powder Sentencing

Derrick Z. Jackson's Boston Globe column today tracks Barack Obama's record on drug sentencing, including his stance on the disparate and racially discriminatory federal crack-powder cocaine sentencing ratios and the death penalty.

Shorter version: He used to be against the harsh crack cocaine penalties but now won't commit to doing anything to fix them. It may not be worth the "political capital" it would take.

On the death penalty, while he's voted against it in some cases, he's also voted to strengthen it in others.

Details below:

On crack-powder:

He said that if he were to become president, he would support a commission to issue a report "that allows me to say that based on the expert evidence, this is not working and it's unfair and unjust. Then I would move legislation forward."

Of course, we've already had a few of those reports from the Sentencing Commission. Hasn't he read them -- or about them? As to "political capital,"

"Even if we fix this, if it was a 1-to-1 ratio, it's still a problem that folks are selling crack. It's still a problem that our young men are in a situation where they believe the only recourse for them is the drug trade. So there is a balancing act that has to be done in terms of, do we want to spend all our political capital on a very difficult issue that doesn't get at some of the underlying issues; whether we want to spend more of that political capital getting early childhood education in place, getting after-school programs in place, getting summer school programs in place."

What a disappointment. As Jackson points out,

By asking an open question about spending "all our political capital" on eliminating the 100-to-1 ratio, that raises the possibility he will spend little or none on it. By talking about a "broader" prescription of early childhood school programs -- which means nothing to a 17-year-old in jail-- Obama risks flashing a losing card of being nonconfrontational.

On the death penalty:

A [Chicago] Tribune profile this spring on Obama found vacillation on what anecdotes merit capital punishment. He opposed expanding the death penalty for "gang activity" murders, saying it would serve as a "mechanism to target particular neighborhoods." But he voted to strengthen the penalty for particularly gruesome killings of elders or the physically or mentally challenged.

It is to Obama's credit that as a state legislator in Illinois, he sponsored legislation requiring police to videotape interrogations and confessions in murder cases. And that he sponsored a study on racial profiling in traffic stops.

What is his record on sponsoring federal legislation on these issues as Senator? More importantly, why is he waffling?

To be clear, while both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards have expressed their support in the past for the death penalty, they've been tempering it lately. See Edwards' comments at his recent Yearly Kos breakout session where he expressed his concern with our broken death penalty system. Hillary, at a debate at Howard University in June, made these points:

We do have to go after racial profiling. I've supported legislation to try to tackle that....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...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.

Neither have seemed to be particularly concerned with the crack-powder issue. I don't expect either to promise to repeal all mandatory minimum sentences if elected or to abolish the death penalty.

But if you were expecting Obama to be different, it looks like you'll be disappointed.

Update: Law Prof Doug Berman of Sentencing Law and Policy agrees Obama's remarks are a disappointment:

I find this so disappointing because I think effective reform of the federal criminal justice system (including its deep racial issues) needs an effective and forceful moral leader, not another unprincipled political strategist....
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  • Display: Sort:
    After (5.00 / 1) (#7)
    by roger on Wed Aug 15, 2007 at 12:29:39 PM EST
    Fisa and Iraq, it looks like Ralph Nader was right, they're all the same

    Weak on Crime (5.00 / 1) (#8)
    by Jeff in Texas on Wed Aug 15, 2007 at 02:07:08 PM EST
    Is yet another Republican-created label that makes Dems crap themselves.  Other than the difference in the judges they will appoint to the bench-- and that is a huge difference, don't get me wrong-- the Democratic candidates simply cannot be expected to do much about crime that the Republicans wouldn't do.  Drug war funding expanded greatly under Bill "did not inhale" Clinton, and he signed a number of poorly conceived federal criminal statutes, and I imagine this current crop of Dems would feel similarly compelled to prove their tough-on-crime bona fides.  None of them are going to want to spend their political capital expanding "criminal rights."  Sad but true.    

    Obama is true to his own form (1.00 / 1) (#5)
    by janinsanfran on Wed Aug 15, 2007 at 11:52:36 AM EST
    Obama's stock in trade is that he is a non-threatening Black man -- a fine talking dog and therefore notable and comforting. Don't expect squat from the guy on any issue perceived in white America as a Black issue.

    Why not just call him an U.T. since that's (none / 0) (#6)
    by Geekesque on Wed Aug 15, 2007 at 12:12:25 PM EST
    clearly what you're itching to say?

    What (none / 0) (#10)
    by Pancho on Wed Aug 15, 2007 at 02:55:01 PM EST
    would you say is a black issue? Why do we have to have black issues and white issues?

    Tempered? (none / 0) (#1)
    by mindfulmission on Wed Aug 15, 2007 at 10:35:01 AM EST
    both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards have expressed their support in the past for the death penalty, they've been tempering it lately.

    Hmmm.... not so much, at least from what I have seen.  I watched the video of Edwards at Yearly Kos.  I wouldn't call that "tempered" support for the death penalty.  He essentially said, "Sorry you disagree, but I fully support the death penalty."

    And I haven't seen any tempering from the Clinton campaign related to the death penalty.

    Here's the quote from one of the Edwards Attendees (none / 0) (#2)
    by Jeralyn on Wed Aug 15, 2007 at 11:11:05 AM EST
    at the link I provided:

    Spinning off the atheism/morals question, a commenter brilliantly asked how he could square this moralism with his support for the death penalty, especially given how it impacts minorities disproportionately and has led to the almost-certain murder of innocents. Edwards appreciated the question. And he took the opportunity to decry the current death penalty system while affirming his belief that some acts are so unspeakable that the death penalty is warranted. But this surprised me. He said that "we shouldn't execute anyone until we fix all the flaws in the system.

    As to Hillary, she was a co-sponsor of the  Innocence Protection Act of 2003, a weakened version of which became law in 2004 as part of the Justice for All Act. The bill provides funding (not enough) for post-conviction DNA testing and establishes a DNA testing process for individuals sentenced to the death penalty under federal law.

    As I said, I don't expect either (or any Democratic candidate) to abolish the death penalty. Or even to go as far as John Kerry and support the death penalty only for foreign terrorists and a moratorium on the use of the death penalty until such time (as ever) the problems with it can be fixed. Thanks to Kerry in 2004, for the first time support for the death penalty was deleted from the party's platform.

    All I'm saying, it doesn't look like Obama is any different or more enlightened on these issues than the others. And the "political capital" comment is vaguely troubling.

    Looking for "enlightened" candidates? (none / 0) (#3)
    by Deconstructionist on Wed Aug 15, 2007 at 11:20:09 AM EST
     You might ask Diogenes to lend you his lamp. But, don't settle for his letting you use it only after he first finds an honest one, unless you want a long wait.

    In other words, his track record is clearly (none / 0) (#4)
    by Geekesque on Wed Aug 15, 2007 at 11:40:33 AM EST
    better than Hillary's or Edwards, but he should still be singled out for criticism.

    Interesting double standard at work here.

    your usual brilliant TRUTH (none / 0) (#9)
    by seabos84 on Wed Aug 15, 2007 at 02:32:54 PM EST
    since the facts that others find pertinent, and how they interpret those facts, isn't THE TRUTH.

    isn't it cool how, in politics and economics, THE TRUTH can be proved the way Euclid proved that there are an infinite number of primes?



    Jarelyn's credibility as an Obama basher (none / 0) (#11)
    by Jgarza on Wed Aug 29, 2007 at 11:04:26 AM EST
    I take everything from Jarelyn with a grain of salt.  Die hard Hillary supporter, on a constant crusade to bash her biggest rival, all the while trying to spin away everthing wrong with Clinton.  There posts are to Hillary what Fox News is to republicans.