President Obama said that each of the eight men and women were sentenced under an unfair system that included unjust mandatory sentencing.
About a year ago President Obama, in an interview with Time Magazine, indicated that while he was “pretty conservative, pretty law and order when it comes to violent crime…there’s here’s a big chunk of that prison population, a great huge chunk of our criminal justice system that is involved in nonviolent crimes. And it is having a disabling effect on communities. Obviously, inner city communities are most obvious, but when you go into rural communities, you see a similar impact. You have entire populations that are rendered incapable of getting a legitimate job because of a prison record.”
President Obama lived up to his commitment, and today, Thursday, commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates who were convicted of crack cocaine offenses. Each inmate has been imprisoned for at least 15 years, and six were sentenced to life in prison.
The New York Times reports: “It was the first time retroactive relief was provided to a group of inmates who most likely would have received significantly shorter terms if they had been sentenced under current drug laws, sentencing rules and charging policies.”
President Obama said that each of the eight men and women were sentenced under an unfair system that included unjust mandatory sentencing for crack cocaine that 100-to-1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. This disparity, which overwhelmingly effected minority populations, was significantly reduced in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2011.
As Mr. Obama said, “If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society …“Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.”
According to today’s NY Times article there has been a 800 percent increase in the number of prisoners in the United States in recent years because of the “draconian mandatory minimum sentences…With 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has about 25 percent of its inmates. And, this “amid crime rates that have plunged to the lowest levels in four decades.”
The cost to incarcerate a person is $26.000 every year in the federal system leaving tax payers with an enormous bill. Tax payers spent more than $4 billion on federal prisons in 2000, which is estimated to swell to more than $20 billion by 2020. These spiraling cost have led to sentencing reform movement for non-violent offenses even in conservative states like Texas and South Carolina.
But there is the issue of fairness. ‘According to the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, about 8,800 federal inmates sentenced for crack offenses before the Fair Sentencing Act would be eligible to apply for a reduced sentence were the bill to become law.”
There is legislation working its way through Congress co-sponsored by Senators Durbin, (D) and Mike Lee, (R) which would make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive for some offenders and would give judges the ability to review on a case by case and reduce sentences.
As President Obama said: “Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness..But it must not be the last. In the new year, lawmakers should act on the kinds of bipartisan sentencing reform measures already working their way through Congress. Together, we must ensure that our taxpayer dollars are spent wisely, and that our justice system keeps its basic promise of equal treatment for all.”
The NY Times had reported in September that Attorney General Eric Holder announced at a speech before the annual conference of the Congressional Black Caucus, builds on a major policy change he unveiled last month to avoid mandatory minimum sentencing laws in future low-level cases.
Attorney General Eric Holder has in addition to the reduction in mandatory minimum sentences for crack offenses established by the Fair Sentencing Act “instructed prosecutors to omit listing quantities of illicit substances in indictments for low-level drug offenses in order to avoid setting off strict mandatory minimum sentences. He also ordered prosecutors to recharge pending cases to bring them in line with that policy.”
Again, of the eight federal inmates who had their sentences commuted today by Mr. Obama, “each inmate has been imprisoned for at least 15 years, and six were sentenced to life in prison.” One person had been serving three life sentences for a non-violent crime and thousands more need to be given consideration.
Mandatory minimum sentences and unfair utilization of incarceration for low level non-violent crimes is not only morally wrong, it also has a draconian effect on the education of our children.
Of the costs of incarceration President Obama said, “… it gobbles up a huge amount of resources. If you look at state budgets, part of the reason that tuition has been rising in public universities across the country is because more and more resources were going into paying for prisons, and that left less money to provide to colleges and universities.”
By Steven Bernstein
This post originally appeared at Occupy Democrats