Thursday, March 31, 2016

Give second chances a chance -- March 31, 2016 column


Before the New Hampshire primary in 1992, Gov. Bill Clinton denied clemency to a mentally incapacitated death-row inmate and flew home to Arkansas to oversee the execution.

Back then, presidential candidates needed to show they were tough on crime.

Today, they’re tough on the criminal justice system.

Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both favor criminal justice reform. Republican Ted Cruz originally supported reform but has backed off. Reform is one thing about which Donald Trump hasn’t said much.

Interestingly, though, none of the GOP presidential hopefuls in this snarling campaign called Clinton as soft on crime when she proposed ending mass incarceration, reducing sentences for non-violent drug offenders and reforming mandatory sentencing laws.

A rare consensus has developed among Democrats and Republicans that the criminal justice system is, as former Attorney General Eric Holder said, broken. In the 1990s’ War on Drugs, voters wanted to lock up criminals and throw away the key. 

President Bill Clinton signed the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act that created longer mandatory sentences and made felonies of lesser crimes.

Now, with nearly half the inmates in federal prisons incarcerated for drug offenses at a per-inmate cost of nearly $30,000 a year, attitudes have changed. Most people think the law is unduly harsh, locks up too many people -- especially minorities -- costs too much and does not make us safer.

President Barack Obama, who has made criminal justice reform a priority, Wednesday commuted the sentences of 61 nonviolent drug offenders. This brought his total commutations to 248 -- more than the last six presidents combined, the White House said.

 Two Alabama prisoners had their sentences commuted: Ian Kavanaugh Gavin of Eight Mile and Jerome Harris Jr. of Mobile. Both were convicted of intending to distribute crack cocaine and having a firearm in their possession.

Since he has been president, Obama has commuted 92 life sentences. Among them: Dwayne Twane Walker of Charlottesville, Va., who received life for a conviction of conspiracy to distribute cocaine base.

 “The power to grant pardons and commutations…embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws,” Obama said in a letter to the prisoners who will be freed.

While he has issued only a fraction of the 10,000 clemency grants for nonviolent offenders Holder predicted last year, Obama vows to do more. The Justice Department’s pardon attorney quit earlier this year because she was frustrated with the slow pace and the backlog of clemency requests.

No one, though, expects clemency to solve our prison problems.

White House Counsel Neil Eggleston wrote on the White House blog: “Clemency is nearly always a tool of last resort that can help specific individuals, but does nothing to make our criminal justice system on the whole more fair and just.”

Reform requires legislation, and some states have taken the lead. In Congress, there’s bipartisan interest, and House Speaker Paul Ryan promises the House will take up reform sometime this year.

Democrats Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia are among cosponsors of the bipartisan sentencing reform bill in the Senate. Sen. Mike Lee, a conservative Republican from Utah, favors easing mandatory sentencing laws.

Not all are convinced, however. Sen. Jeff Sessions, a conservative Republican from Alabama, is among those who worry that violent criminals might be freed and commit more crimes.

In the 1990s, fear of recidivism motivated the sledgehammer approach to judicial discretion, replacing it with mandatory minimum sentences.

Eight years ago, although he opposed easing sentencing laws, President George W. Bush signed the Second Chance Act, which provides grants to faith-based and other groups to help prisoners train for jobs, fight substance abuse and learn other skills to reenter society.

Since 2009, more than $400 million in Second Chance grants has been distributed, and other federal programs also help offenders get on their feet. Even so, our recidivism record is appalling.

Almost half of federal offenders released in 2005 were rearrested for a new crime or for a violation of supervision conditions within eight years – most within two years, the U.S. Sentencing Commission said in a study released March 9. Of these, almost one-third were reconvicted.

The current epidemic of opioid and heroin addiction is worse than the cocaine epidemic of the 1990s. We need to stop warehousing nonviolent drug offenders and invest instead in prevention, treatment, rehab, education and recovery. We can’t afford to do anything else.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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