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On Obama’s Depressingly Conventional Approach to the Drug War

Jacob Sullum’s invaluable feature story [1] in the latest issue of Reason details the many ways that President Obama has failed to live up to the high hopes drug law reformers pinned on him back in 2008, when hope was still fashionable. I found this part particularly stomach-turning:

More generally, Obama has repeatedly expressed the view that many people in federal prisons are serving unconscionably long sentences. Yet he has not used his unilateral, absolute, and constitutionally unambiguous clemency power to shorten a single sentence, even though he has not otherwise been reticent about pushing his executive authority to the limit (and beyond). Obama went almost two years, longer than every president except George Washington and George W. Bush, before approving any clemency petitions. So far all 17 of his clemency actions have been pardons for long-ago crimes, most which did not even result in prison sentences, as opposed to commutations, which authorize the early release of current prisoners. While seven of the pardons involved drug offenders, the most severe sentence among them was five years for conspiracy to import marijuana, which 63-year-old Randy Eugene Dyer of Burien, Washington, completed more than 30 years ago. As of mid-2011, Obama had received about 4,000 petitions for commutations,  in addition [2] to 900 that were pending when he took office. He had not approved any.

This is not for lack of glaring injustices. Last year a federal prisoner named Hamedah Hasan, who is seeking clemency with help from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), wrote an open letter to Obama. “I am a mother and grandmother serving my 17th year of a 27-year federal prison sentence for a first time, nonviolent crack cocaine offense,” she said. “I never used or sold drugs, but I was convicted under conspiracy laws for participating in a drug organization by running errands and wiring money. Had I been convicted of a powder cocaine offense, I would be home with my three daughters and two grandchildren by now. I have had a lot of time to think about where I went wrong, and I genuinely take full responsibility for my actions. But I hope you will see that over 16 years in prison is enough time for me to pay my debt [2] to society.”

Another crack offender, Kenneth Harvey, is serving a life sentence for possession of more than 50 grams with intent to deliver, a crime he committed in his early 20s. Although legally required to send Harvey away for life because of two prior drug convictions (neither of which resulted in prison time), the judge who sentenced him recommended that he be granted clemency after 15 years, and an appeals court agreed. Yet Harvey, now 45, has been in prison for more than two decades. Last year USA Today reported that his family “thought when Barack Obama got elected president, they’d have a shot.”

Clarence Aaron, arrested when he was a student at Southern University in Baton Rouge with no criminal record, is serving three consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole for arranging a meeting between a childhood friend and a cocaine dealer. He has been behind bars since 1993. “There’s no reason he needs to serve [3] more time,” says [President of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation] Eric Sterling. “The system is rife with these injustices. Obama’s record on clemency is shameful.”

Indeed. Obama’s unwillingness to use his clemency powers to correct these obvious injustices demonstrates a complete lack of moral authority. Defenders will argue that political reality forces him to keep these people in prison. Obama could grant these unfortunate souls mercy, the argument goes, but the Republicans would not show him any. Perhaps it would be his Willie Horton [4] moment and turn him into a one-term president.

But so what? Is the goal of Obama’s presidency to make government more just or to wield political power for its own sake? These are the sort of horrific injustices that every decent man should shout from the rooftops until they are either rectified or his voice gives out, and if Obama cannot bring himself to break out the autopen [5] and free these people, he reveals that he cares more about the political scoreboard than justice.