Monday, August 12, 2013

Holder: Compassionate Release?

Charley Savage of the New York Times reports that there has been a "major shift in criminal justice policy" in the Obama administration. According to Savage the administration "will move on Monday to ease overcrowding in federal prisons by ordering prosecutors to omit listing quantities of illegal substances in indictments for low-level drug cases." The effect will be to "sidestep" federal laws that impose strict mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses.

Writes Savage:
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., in a speech at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco on Monday, is expected to announce the new policy as one of several steps intended to curb soaring taxpayer spending on prisons and help correct what he regards as unfairness in the justice system, according to his prepared remarks. Saying that “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason,” Mr. Holder is planning to justify his policy push in both moral and economic terms. “Although incarceration has a role to play in our justice system, widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable,” Mr. Holder’s speech says. “It imposes a significant economic burden — totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone — and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.” 
Savage reports that Holder will also introduce a related set of Justice Department policies that would:
leave more crimes to state courts to handle, increase the use of drug-treatment programs as alternatives to incarceration, and expand a program of “compassionate release” for “elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes and have served significant portions of their sentences.” 
Savage boldly suggests the policy changes "appear to be part of Mr. Holder’s effort, before he eventually steps down, to bolster his image and legacy." (We note this suggestion was edited out of later versions of the story) This legacy includes a mere 39 pardons and one commutation of sentence across two terms - the most stingy clemency record since the administration of John Adams.

It also includes thousands upon thousands of young, first-time, non-violent drug offenders rotting away in prisons under sentences imposed by a law which both parties in both houses of Congress has since rejected as unsound and unjust.

The legacy also includes a record number of clemency petition rejections and a Pardon Attorney rebuked by the Office of the Inspector General for manipulating information and misleading the president with respect to the clemency application of an African American (the previous Pardon Attorney having been removed for making racist remarks re an applicant).

In other words, compassion has simply not been a hallmark of the Obama administration, or Mr. Holder's Justice Department.

It is encouraging to see discussion (Holder's gig, since 1999!), and changes in policy, as well as the creation of apparatus and an accompanying mindset to enforce such policies. But, in their wisdom, the Founding Fathers created their own compassionate release program and put it in the Constitution. It is called the pardon power. Long before prison crowding and tax payers were forking out millions for incarcerations, Alexander Hamilton argued there should be "easy access" to mercy. We will see if any of that logic is reflected in this "major shift." See full article here.

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