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.
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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