Obama administration makes symbolic drug war pardons

Official White House Photo: Pete Souza

Official White House Photo: Pete Souza

President Barack Obama used his Christmas pardons to send yet another signal that his administration is deeply unhappy with the drug-war era policies that have disproportionately locked up African Americans and Hispanics.

He issued commutations to eight inmates serving lengthy sentences for crack cocaine convictions.

All were sent to prison during an era when crack cocaine — used more frequently by people of color — was subject to far more aggressive mandatory minimums than the powder cocaine favored by white drug users.

Six of the other people who received full pardons were also entangled in the criminal justice system for drug crimes, ranging from marijuana to heroin to meth.

This move follows Attorney General Eric Holder’s move last April to change Justice Department policies to avoid mandatory minimum prosecutions for low-level drug crimes.

At the time, Holder called disparities in racial sentencing “disgraceful.”

Still, the White House and Democrats haven’t proposed major reforms to Federal drug laws — many of which were toughened by Democrats in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

Indeed, Vice President Joe Biden was a chief architect of some of the nation’s toughest penalties for drug possession and dealing.

The president’s gesture also follows a Federal report issued earlier this month which pointed to the fact that the Federal prison system continues to expand, with a growing number of inmates, even as many states have begun to cut their prisoner numbers.

“The crisis in the federal prison system is two-fold,” reported Inspector General Michael Horowitz.

“First, the costs of the federal prison system continue to escalate, consuming an ever-larger share of the Department’s budget with no relief in sight.  In the current era of flat or declining budgets, the continued growth of the prison system budget poses a threat to the Department’s other critical programs – including those designed to protect national security, enforce criminal laws, and defend civil rights. As I have stated in testimony to Congress during the past year, the path the Department is on is unsustainable in the current budget environment.”

That ballooning cost of housing so many inmates is complicated, Horowitz said, by the fact that prisons are increasingly overcrowded:

“[F]ederal prisons are facing a number of important safety and security issues, including, most significantly, that they have been overcrowded for years and the problem is only getting worse.  Since 2006, Department officials have acknowledged the threat overcrowding poses to the safety and security of its prisons, yet the Department has not put in place a plan that can reasonably be expected to alleviate the problem.”

Holder’s temporary policy shifts and President Obama’s pardons and commutations continue to draw attention to the drug-war era sentencing laws that have packed the prisons.

But it’s unlikely that any wholesale solution can come without serious legislation in Washington, comparable to the Rockefeller drug law reform that passed in Albany in 2009.

Whether that’s politically feasible or not is an open question.




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