Obama and Defendants' Rights: Progressive Or Not?
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. (For Obama in 2004 on abolishing mandatory minimums, see this video clip at 1:00 minute in.)
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 below:
Obama on Crime, from his Senate website
Senator Obama cosponsored the Combat Meth Act, which provides more money for fighting methamphetamine (meth), tightens controls on the sale of meth ingredients, and provides assistance to the children of meth abusers. The legislation would limit access to cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine, the primary ingredient used to make methamphetamine. This bill passed the Senate and became law in the 109th Congress.
...Senator Obama has supported greater funding to fight meth through the use of Byrne Justice Assistance Grants.
The website then touts his support of sex offender notification laws and penalties
Senator Obama cosponsored Dru's Law which creates a nationwide sex offender database and requires greater monitoring of sex offenders upon their release from prison. The bill passed the Senate in July of 2005. This legislation was incorporated into a larger bill, the Adam Walsh Child Protection Act, which Senator Obama supported and which has been signed into law.
He also cosponsored the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act. This bill increases the penalties for sex crimes against children under the age of 12 and creates a national Internet site known as the National Sex Offender Public Registry. The bill would also provide grants to local law enforcement to assist in preventing and investigating sex crimes against minors.
Senator Obama is a cosponsor of the KIDS Act, which requires convicted sex offenders to provide their Internet identifiers, such as e-mail addresses and instant message addresses, for inclusion into the national sex offender registry.
From news articles in the Lexis/Nexis database:
Obama's record a plus, a minus; Votes in Senate defy easy labels Chicago Tribune October 8, 2004
"I voted for, or co-sponsored myself, over 100 bills that strengthened criminal penalties for everything ranging from sex offenders to drug dealers to domestic violence abusers," he said. "It would be very hard to argue, if you look at the totality of my record, that I somehow have been soft on crime. ... Those who have tried to paint me recently as being too liberal are some of the colleagues I worked most closely with. They never held that view until election season."
Barack Obama Seeks To Shape National Debate For Illinois N'DIGO, March 6, 2003 - March 12, 2003
Obama is also pushing for, at the state and federal level, additional funding for early childhood educational programs. He adds that lawmakers must re-examine drug laws. Federal mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent offenses has been a mistake, Obama said, at both the state and federal levels. He explained that the harsh sentencing guidelines do not take into account the potential for rehabilitation for young people who are involved in non-violent crimes.
Senate sends ecstasy legislation to governor Copley News Service May 10, 2001, Thursday,
The Illinois Senate sent legislation to the governor Thursday that would significantly increase penalties for dealing the drug ecstasy, as well as make it easier for law enforcement to prosecute people for drug-induced homicide.
....The other aspect of the bill makes a technical change to Illinois' criminal code that broadens the definition of drug-induced homicide. Under the proposal, if a person died after being sold just one hit of ecstasy, the dealer could be changed with drug-induced homicide. It would currently require selling a very large amount of the drug before a person could be charged with such a crime. Drug-induced homicide is a Class X felony with a minimum mandatory sentence of six years in prison.
House Bill 126 would make it a Class X felony if a person is convicted of possession with the intent to distribute 15 to 200 doses of ecstasy, which equates to a mandatory minimum sentence of six years in prison.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Chicago, questioned whether Illinois' drug penalties are appropriate considering that a person convicted of raping a woman at knifepoint would be charged with the same level of offense as someone convicted of selling 15 doses of ecstasy.
Obama's record a plus, a minus; Votes in Senate defy easy labels Chicago Tribune October 8, 2004 Friday,
In 2001, Obama was one of just nine senators to vote against a bill that toughened penalties for violent crimes committed during gang activity. Obama said the law did not clearly define a gang member and he questioned why lawmakers were targeting Hispanics and blacks for stiffer sentences.
Two years earlier, after the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado, Obama voted "present" on a bill requiring juveniles to be prosecuted as adults for firing a firearm on or near school property.
Obama also voted against a bill permitting gun owners to claim self-defense when using a gun in their homes if the local community bans the use of handguns. Obama said municipalities should control local gun regulations, not the state.
"That law eviscerated anti-handgun ordinances in some communities," Obama said. "The way I feel, Wilmette should not determine Mattoon's firearms ordinances and Mattoon should not determine Wilmette's."
Gov. signs ephedra ban with jail time Chicago Defender May 27, 2003
In signing the only legislation of its kind in America, Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich Sunday signed a bill banning the sale of ephedra, a weight loss and body-building pill which he likened to playing "Russian Roulette."
To make sure users know the consequences of their choices, the legislation, which becomes effective immediately, makes it a misdemeanor to sell ephedra supplements in the state of Illinois and is punishable by up to a year in jail, along with a 5,000 fine. However, repeat offenders could face up to five years in jail and a 20,000 fine.
....Joining the governor at the press conference were co-sponsors of the legislation Sen. Barack Obama (D-13th); Rep. Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago), Chicago Bears All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher, DePaul University director of Athletics Jean Lenti Ponsetto who also chairs the NCAA Championship Committee, and Debbie and Kevin Riggins of Lincoln.
Legislative record puts Obama at heart of philosophical debate The Associated Press State & Local Wire September 11, 2004
The statistics on bill introductions paint an even clearer picture of Obama's rise from rank-and-file lawmaker under Republican rule to a favored sponsor under Democratic control.
...Obama has sponsored more than 780 bills, and more than 280 have been signed into law.
But Obama was the lead sponsor - the person who introduces the legislation and guides it through - on only about 30 bills that became law. More than 20 of those bills were approved after Democrats took control of the governor's office and Legislature in January 2003.
A look at some key votes by state Sen. Barack Obama The Associated Press State & Local Wire September 11, 2004,
-Voted 'No' on letting people claim a self-defense protection in court for using a gun in their homes despite local weapons bans. (SB2165, 2004)
-Voted 'Yes' on letting retired police and military police carry concealed weapons. (SB2188, 2004)
-Successfully sponsored requirement that law enforcement videotape interrogations of suspects in some serious crimes. (SB15, 2003)
Successfully sponsored law enforcement study of the race of people pulled over for traffic tickets. (SB30, 2003)
Voted 'No' on making gang members eligible for the death penalty if they kill someone to help their gang. (HB1812, 2001) MISCELLANEOUS
Cops give Obama subdued reception Chicago Tribune August 20, 2004 Friday,
Last week, Obama won the endorsement of the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police. Union officials cited Obama's longtime support of gun-control measures and his willingness to negotiate compromises on bills backed or opposed by the FOP.
Obama unveils federal gun bill Chicago Defender December 13, 1999,
Obama is proposing to make it a felony for a gun owner whose firearm was stolen from his residence which causes harm to another person if that weapon was not securely stored in that home.
He's proposing restricting gun purchases to one weapon a month and banning the sale of firearms at gun shows except for "antique" weapons. Obama is also proposing increasing the licensing fee to obtain a federal firearms
Senate approves Edgar's changes to juvenile justice bill Copley News Service May 05, 1998, Tuesday,
The Illinois Senate on Tuesday approved Gov. Jim Edgar's suggested changes to a bill that imposes adult penalties to some youthful offenders.
The governor's recommendations to the measure, which came down Friday, primarily give judges more discretion in sentencing to consider the ''best interests of the minor.''
''I do think the governor's suggestions are sound ones, and we'll be supporting the bill,'' said Sen. Barack Obama, D-Chicago. The Senate voted 57-0 to approve the alterations to Illinois' Juvenile Justice Act.
For Obama as U.S. Senator and presidential candidate, see my prior posts:
- 12/14/07: The Democratic Candidates Discuss Their Crime Agendas
- 12/3/07: Hillary Comes Out Against Crack-Powder Retroactivity (includes Obama's views)
- 11/25/07: Obama and Medical Pot: More Research Needed
- 11/12/07: Obama Touts His Death Penalty Reform Role (Also see this comment to the post)
- O8/28/07: Obama Wants to Strengthen Drug War in New Orleans
- 8/15/07: Obama Wavers on Crack-Powder Sentencing (includes his position on death penalty)
- 7/1/07: Dems Debate Sentencing Reforms and Mandatory Minimums
[Note: This is not a law review article. It's a blog post resulting from an afternoon of research through Lexis and a review of my prior posts and the material sourced in them. It's intended to give readers a sense of where he stands, not as an authoritative or complete work. If there is anything that needs correction, let me know and if I agree, I'll make the change.]
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