Monday, September 13, 2010

Obama backing off strict crime policy

[Re-posted from POLITICO because: can you imagine replacing "Obama" with "Schwarzenegger" in this article? Nope, me neither, but it feels good to think about it...]

Obama backing off strict crime policy
by Josh Gerstein

For years, it was one of the GOP’s most potent political epithets — labeling a Democrat “soft on crime.”

But the Obama White House has taken the first steps in decades to move away from a strict lock-‘em-up mentality on crime — easing sentences for crack cocaine possession, launching a top-to-bottom review of sentencing policies and even sounding open to reviewing guidelines that call for lengthy prison terms for people convicted of child pornography offenses.

The moves — still tentative, to be sure — suggest that President Barack Obama’s aides are betting that the issue has lost some of its punch with voters more worried about terrorism and recession. In one measure of the new political climate surrounding the issue, the Obama administration actually felt free to boast that the new crack-sentencing bill would go easier on some drug criminals.

“The Fair Sentencing Act marks the first time in 40 years that Congress has reduced a mandatory minimum sentence,” said White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, who billed the new legislation as “monumental.”

Obama’s signing of long-debated legislation last month to reduce the disparity between prison sentences for crack and powdered cocaine is being hailed by some advocates as a watershed moment in the nation’s approach to criminal justice.

And even with a tough election looming, the Democratic Congress is showing a willingness to consider moving away from incarceration and toward rehabilitation and out-of-prison punishments that might have been attacked in the 1990s as the coddling of criminals.

At the urging of a conservative Democrat, Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia , the House passed a bill in July to create a federal commission to study criminal sentences. The measure cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier in the year with little resistance from Republicans.

“I think the political landscape around the issue is shifting and I think that will provide room for the administration to address some of these issues,” said Jennifer Bellamy of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Advocates point to several reasons for the shift toward a less-draconian approach to crime and for its retreat as a hot-button political issue. Crime rates are at some of the lowest levels in a generation. Stories of offenders who got decades behind bars for playing minor roles in drug operations have generated some sympathy in the public. Huge budget woes facing states and the federal government are raising doubts about policies that are causing prison populations and costs to go up.

In addition, Republicans who once accused Democrats of being soft on crime now accuse them of being soft on terrorists. As a result, tinkering with the way run-of-the-mill criminals are treated doesn’t seem to be the political third rail it once was.

Mary Price of Families Against Mandatory Minimums noted that the crack-disparity bill passed in Congress with remarkably little consternation. “I think other concerns have crowded out some of the hysteria around crime,” Price said.

“Republicans could have said, ‘If this passes, we’ll make this an issue in the midterms.’ Nobody said that,” Price observed. “This was not an issue for Republicans.”

While most of the Obama administration’s moves toward rolling back some of the harshest aspects of the war on crime have been tentative, some have been surprising. For instance, a little-noticed letter issued by the Justice Department in June urged a federal commission to review the sentencing guidelines for child pornography offenses — a review that many advocates say would almost certainly result in lowering the recommended sentences in such cases.

“They’re saying, essentially, that they want to level sentences in the middle, but necessarily, leveling in the middle is almost demanding that they bring the guidelines down,” said Doug Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University. “They’ve chosen language … saying we’re open to doing something that is not entirely tough.”

In another sign of the new climate, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a review of criminal sentencing policies soon after he came into office.

“Too much time has passed, too many people have been treated in a disparate manner and too many of our citizens have come to have doubts about our criminal justice system,” Holder said in June 2009. “We must be honest with each other and have the courage to ask difficult questions of ourselves and our system. We must break out of the old and tired partisan stances that have stood in the way of needed progress and reform. We have a moment in time that must be seized.”

The internal review endorsed lowering some crack sentences, something Obama had already promised to do, and publicly offered some vague suggestions on changes to mandatory minimums. Holder also issued a memo giving local federal prosecutors a bit more autonomy in charging decisions.

Another result of that review was a June letter that called for a new look at child porn sentences.

“The time is ripe for evaluating the current guidelines and considering whether reforms are warranted,” Jonathan Wroblewski, director of the Justice Department’s Office of Policy and Legislation, wrote to former judge and FBI director Bill Sessions, who heads the U.S. Sentencing Commission. “Consideration ought to be given to updating many aspects of the child pornography sentencing guidelines to better calibrate the severity and culpability of defendants' criminal conduct with the applicable guideline sentencing ranges.”

Justice’s call for a review came as defense attorneys have been gaining traction with arguments that the guidelines and mandatory minimums set by Congress call for excessively long sentences. Some lawyers contend that defendants who briefly exchange child porn photos or video online can actually get longer sentences than those who seek to molest children.

The Justice Department has disputed those arguments in court, but federal judges have increasingly given sentences below the guidelines. An assistant federal public defender from Missouri , Troy Stabenow, said he thinks the department’s decision is basically a tactical move to stem the slide towards lower sentences.

“It’s just the logical thing they needed to do,” said Stabenow. He said the notion that any politician would wade into the subject on his own volition boggles the mind.

“I would think no sane politician who values being reelected would want to engage in this area,” Stabenow said. “I don’t think there’s any criminal group that yields a more visceral response than the child pornography group.”

A Justice Department spokeswoman stressed that the June letter didn’t endorse higher or lower sentences for child pornography.

“We asked the sentencing commission to comprehensively review and report on the state of federal sentencing and to explore whether systemic reforms are needed,” Justice spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said. “We also asked the commission to review the guidelines for child exploitation and fraud offenses, but did not recommend necessarily higher or lower penalties for either child exploitation [or] fraud offenses.”

One prominent advocate for long sentences in child pornography cases, Ernie Allen of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said he welcomes a review of the guidelines and why judges are often giving lower sentences. However, he said he would oppose any overall reduction in the guidelines and does not think that’s what Justice officials want.

“If that is the implication, clearly, we would differ with that,” Allen said. “These are crime scene photos that re-victimize the child in the photo over and over again, [but] I think both of us recognize that the crime guidelines are dated.”

Despite the tentative moves in the direction of lessening some sentences, there remain numerous signs that Obama and his aides recognize that the issue could still be politically damaging.

When Obama signed the crack disparity bill, only still photographers were allowed in and the president issued no formal statement. The Justice Department’s sentencing review group has indicated it has no plan to issue a formal report that could become a political football. And, 18 months into his presidency, Obama has yet to issue a single commutation or even a pardon to an elderly ex-con seeking to clear his record.

Some advocates note that the crack sentencing bill was not particularly ambitious: it reduced the crack/powder disparity from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. And it wasn’t retroactive, so some who were sentenced under mandatory minimum laws may not benefit.

Asked whether Obama might grant requests to commute the sentences of those who would have gotten less punishment if they committed their crimes today, an administration official said the crack-disparity bill “reflected Congress’s judgment that the law should not be retroactive, [and] the president believes that the Fair Sentencing Act will go a long way toward ensuring that our sentencing laws are tough, consistent and fair.”

The official also downplayed the notion that Obama might offer some kind of blanket clemency for earlier crack-cocaine offenders, saying that “as a general matter, the president agrees with the Department of Justice’s long-held view that commutation is an extraordinary remedy that should only be granted in extraordinary circumstances.”

But activists are watching Obama on the issue. “Retroactivity will be the next battle,” Price said. “It would be cruelly ironic for us to take lessons learned from those who are currently serving, change the law for people going forward and then say, 'OK, the accident of the calendar you are condemned to serve much longer than people who, because of your experience, are getting out sooner.'”

In the heat of the presidential campaign, Obama sent mixed signals on crime. In the primary, he differed with Hillary Clinton by endorsing shortened sentences for some crack offenders already in jail. As the general election neared, he tacked to the right of the Supreme Court by criticizing the court’s 5-4 decision barring the use of the death penalty for child rapists who don’t kill their victims.

Berman said he thinks Obama and his aides can’t fully break with President Bill Clinton’s approach of trying to look as tough or even tougher than Republicans on crime.

“Obama wants to do something, I think, big on criminal justice and I think he’s absolutely afraid to,” Berman said. “Democrats are right to continue to fear tough-on-crime demagoguery. The lessons of Clinton continues to resonate. … This really is, inevitably, low-priority, high-risk kind of stuff.”

Obama also faces one factor Clinton did not: race. While 58 percent of federal inmates arewhite, Berman said some Americans are sure to have the perception that an African-American president is aiding criminals of his own race.

“Whether consciously or subconsciously, everyone understands that the first black president has to tread particularly cautiously in this area,” Berman said.

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