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Obama’s War on Drug Sentencing

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He says the punishments didn’t fit the crimes

By Frederick H. Lowe

President Barack Obama commutes drug sentences
President Barack Obama commutes drug sentences

Saying he wanted to restore fairness at the heart of our justice system, President Barack Obama on Monday commuted prison sentences for 46 men and women who were serving decades, including life behind bars, after being convicted of nonviolent drug crimes.

President Obama made the announcement in a video posted on the White House Blog under the headline “America Is a Nation of Second Chances.” (also see today’s video)

The president noted the majority of people whose sentences he commuted had been sentenced to 20 years in prison and 14 were serving life sentences.

“The punishment didn’t fit the crime,” the president said. Each person’s sentence was commuted to expire November 10. He added the U.S. spends $80 billion a year incarcerating people, including those who have committed nonviolent drug offenses.

The race and ethnic group of each of the 46 were not disclosed, but African-Americans have argued for decades the so-called “war on drugs” was a war on us. Gradually, many black politicians began to speak out against the war on drugs, which sparked mass incarceration, mostly of black men, under a law pushed through and signed by President Bill Clinton.

Sheriff Tom Dart of Cook County, Ill.,  praised President Obama’s action.

“I applaud the president on his progressive and compassionate decision to right these past excesses of the failed war on drugs,” Dart said. “Jails and prisons are meant to confine individuals who destroy communities and pose legitimate danger to society. Locking up nonviolent drug offenders for outrageous amounts of time–whether via pretrial detainment in jails or post-sentencing imprisonment–is both morally questionable and fiscally irresponsible.”

Cook County Jail, which is in Chicago, is one of the nation’s largest jails.

President Obama will detail his ideas today (Tuesday) about criminal-justice reform before the NAACP, which is meeting in Philadelphia.

Since the Clinton presidency, major changes have taken place. Colorado and Washington, overwhelmingly white states, have legalized marijuana. Other states as well as the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana or are considering doing it.

President Obama wrote letters to each of the men and women whose sentences he commuted.

In a letter to Jerry Allen Bailey, who is serving time in the Federal Correctional Institution in Jessup, Georgia, President Obama wrote, “I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around. Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change. Perhaps even you are unsure of how you will adjust to your new circumstances.”

The president ended each letter, saying, “I believe in your ability to prove doubters wrong, and change your life for the better. So good luck and Godspeed.”

Bailey of Charlotte, North Carolina, was sentenced to 360 months (30 years) in prison and 10 years of supervised release on April 2, 1996, for conspiracy to violate narcotics laws with crack cocaine.


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