It’s time to Break It Down!
The United States of America is good at lots of things. In fact, our country is so outstanding at so many things, a number of politicos routinely boast that we are an “exceptional nation.” On occasion, it’s necessary and appropriate to frame a particular concept in its proper context. While there is a tendency to think of “Exceptionalism” as a desirable construct, a state to be admired and aspired to, that is not necessarily the case.
An example of one such counterintuitive instance is the incarceration rate. Long a point of contention for ethicists and other people of good will who care about the fair and equitable treatment of human beings all over the planet, the issue is drawing special attention this week in the United States. President Obama commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent offenders earlier this week, and is set to go to prison tomorrow.
Oh wait, you thought… OK, he’s not really “going” to prison, he’s going to visit a prison. Sorry GOP partisans.
Yes, for the first time in the history of the world, a sitting President of Exceptional America, the shining light on the hill, will visit a Federal Prison. On tomorrow, President Obama is scheduled to visit El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma.
The facility is a medium-security United States federal prison for male inmates. It is operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a division of the United States Department of Justice, and currently holds 1,000 inmates, 265 of whom are in prison camp.
Perhaps the most notable inmate currently residing at the facility is Kwame Kilpatrick, Register Number 44678-039, former Mayor of Detroit, (2002-2008). He was convicted of racketeering conspiracy and other charges in 2013 for using his office to commit extortion, bribery and fraud. Mr. Kilpatrick is serving a 28-year sentence, and is scheduled for release in 2037.
Two days ago the White House announced that President Obama had commuted the sentences of several dozen offenders, most convicted for nonviolent drug offenses. Officials say this move illustrates the President’s commitment to criminal justice reform. In a video posted to the White House’s Facebook page, President Obama said:
“These men and women were not hardened criminals. Their punishments didn’t fit the crime.”
Interestingly, while the President’s move commuted a number of sentences, he did not grant any Pardons. On many occasion, Mr. Obama has eloquently addressed notions of grace and redemption. However, he has been MIA (Missing In Action) when it comes to the issue of Pardons. His paucity in that area is so severe; one has to go all the way back to President James Garfield to find a President who granted fewer Pardons than the 64 that President Obama has. This is even more noteworthy when you consider President Garfield died from an assassin’s bullet in 1881, just over six months after he had been sworn in. President Obama, of course, has been in office over six years.
Doug Berman, an Ohio State University law professor, who has studied Presidential Pardons, says of President Obama:
“He’s been unusually stingy – he’s a clemency Grinch.”
A number of critics, and some current and former officials say the President’s lack of activism in this area reflects his determination to avoid the type of controversies that followed President Clinton, such as the uproar that ensued when President Clinton Pardoned fugitive financier Marc Rich on his last day in office.
P.S. Ruckman, Jr., a political science professor who writes a blog, “Pardon Power,” says:
“It’s just not something he’s interested in.”
He ranks President Obama as “the seventh least merciful” President in history.
The President, in his own defense, blamed the Office of Pardons Attorney, whose Chief, Ronald Rodgers, resigned last year amid disclosures that he had misrepresented a commutation applicant’s record to the White House. A former journalist, Deborah Leff, now heads the Office. Of the situation, the President said:
“I noticed that what I was getting [from the Pardon Office] was mostly small-time crimes from very long ago.”
He vowed to be more aggressive on petitions during his remaining time in office.
It was important to note the President’s differentiation between commutations and pardons in order to view his move to push for judicial reform in a balanced light. It is refreshing that this President is moving to address a system that has treated black and brown people specifically, and the poor in general, in a way that can rightly be called ruthlessly. By the same token, it’s worth noting that three-quarters of the way through his tenure, this President, who has done many remarkable things, has been an underwhelming player in addressing some areas of judicial inequity. The good news is, there are 18 months left in this Presidency, and lots of people will be focused on the 2016 Presidential Election. That may allow the President some oxygen and space to continue to expand the areas in which he leaves an indelible and positive mark on the American landscape.
Judicial reform is certainly an area of opportunity, and incarceration policy and practices make great targets. America is to incarceration, what CNN claims to be to news, the Worldwide Leader. So altogether now, let’s hear the cheer…”We’re Number 1!” What a dubious distinction.
The United States accounts for roughly 4 percent of the world’s population. Contrast that to the fact we account for 22 percent of the world’s prison population, and as you can see, we are vastly overrepresented in that category. In 1970, there were approximately 200,000 incarcerated Americans. By 1990, that number had increased to nearly a million. By 2008, at its peak, the number was around 1,600,000.
In the ‘70’s, America transitioned from the Sex, Drugs, and Rock-N-Roll era of the ‘60’s to a Law and Order society. To that end, the Prison industrial complex was born, and incarceration ceased being the primary purview of bureaucrats, and became principally a functioning for profit enterprise. Partly as a result, an ugly dichotomy emerged.
The crime rate peaked in the ‘80’s. Yet when President Bill Clinton became President in 1992, expanding crime fighting by increasing incarceration levels was still the favored prescription. To wit, President Clinton enacted tougher sentencing laws that not only sent more people to prison, but applied longer sentences. Factor in vastly disparate sentencing for crack (principal urban drug choice) and powdered cocaine (principal suburban drug choice), and the deluge of imprisoned people of color was a fait accompli.
As we approach the midpoint of the second decade of the 21st Century, politicians on both sides of the aisle are beginning to recognize the enormous ill effects of this questionable policy gone totally wrong. The deleterious economic consequences of subtracting hundreds of thousands of able bodied potential employees for the workforce deprives both business and families at a time critical to individuals, companies, and the nation.
I look forward to hearing what the President has to say about reforming the criminal justice system while he is at El Reno tomorrow. He will be interviewed for the HBO newsmagazine series “Vice” on the issue. The segment will air this fall. However, he likely previewed the theme when he spoke at the 2015 NAACP Convention last night in Philadelphia. There he raised the topic and argued it is one America can’t afford to ignore. In laying out his vision for fixing the criminal justice system, he noted a need to focus on communities, courtrooms, and cellblocks. He announced a federal review of the use of solitary confinement, and urged Congress to pass a sentencing reform bill by the end of the year. He also called for voting rights restoration to felons who have served their sentences, and suggested employers eliminate the box asking job candidates about their past convictions. In a nod to his commutations earlier this week, he said long mandatory minimum sentences now in place should be reduced – or discarded entirely.
Taken in total, tomorrow should be an exciting day for Oklahomans, in general, and for the inhabitants and employees of the El Reno Prison. The word is out; “President Obama is Going to Jail: A Presidential First!” But remember, he’s just visiting.
I’m done; holla back!
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