6 Reasons Why Obama's Clemency Program For Drug Offenders Doesn't Change Mass Incarceration One Bit

by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

The White House is reportedly considering using clemency to release a few hundred or couple thousand federal prisoners. Better than nothing, but it's in no sense a start at dismantling the prison state. Clemency changes no laws or institutions or police, prosecutorial or prison practices. The cells will be refilled in weeks. It's a cynical, empty gesture from an administration marked by utter indifference to black suffering.

6 Reasons Why Obama's Clemency Program For Drug Offenders Doesn't Change Mass Incarceration One Bit

by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

It's all over the internet. The Obama administration is talking up the possibility of using presidential clemency powers to release some undetermined number, perhaps hundreds or even thousands of federal prisoners without wealth or political connections from their unjustly long drug sentences. But hold your hosannas, don't get your hopes up. Though the precise numbers are unclear at this time, what's unmistakably evident is that this is in no sense whatsoever the beginning of a rollback of America's prison state. The releases, as the attorney general and government officials are describing them, will not represent any significant or permanent change to the nation's universal policy of mass incarceration, mainly of poor black and brown youth. Here, in plain English are 6 reasons why.

  1. The Obama administration’s expected releases will use the president's clemency powers. Presidential clemency amounts to forgiveness after the fact. Clemency does not change a single word or phrase in any of the galaxy of state and federal laws which have already sent literally millions to prison for absurdly long sentences for what authorities call “non-violent drug offenses,” and under which hundreds of thousands are currently serving those same sentences and hundreds of thousands more are awaiting trial and sentencing. Clemency leaves those laws in place, so that the places of those released will soon be filled again.

  2. Presidential clemency will set no legal precedents that current or future defendants in federal or state drug cases, their attorneys or sentencing judges can use to avoid the application of unjust existing laws, including harsh mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines. Like the unjust statutes, the unjust legal precedents which have helped filled state and federal prisons to bursting will also remain intact.

  3. Presidential clemency will have no effect on the predatory conduct of police and prosecutors on the state or federal level. Police departments will remain free to conduct their “war on drugs” almost exclusively in poor and minority communities. Prosecutors will still be able to coerce defendants into accepting plea bargains, and threaten them with longer sentences if they go to trial. If only one in twenty defendants across the board and even fewer in federal court currently go to trial, what does that say about the ability or the willingness of our courts to even try determining guilt or innocence? Federal prosecutors have publicly thumbed their noses at Eric Holder's feeble questioning of the war on drugs, stated their intention to continue filling the prisons and jails, and local prosecutors in the US are elected officials accustomed to running for office based on how many people they can lock up for how long.

  4. Presidential clemency can only be applied to federal prisoners, who are a mere 190,000, or 11% of the roughly 1.7 million currently serving time. (Another 600,000 are awaiting trial on all levels or serving misdemeanor time.)  If we're talking about federal prisoners serving drug related sentences, the universe shrinks to only 100,000, or 5% of the nation's 2.3 million prisoners.

  5. There are more former prisoners than current ones. For the rest of their lives, former prisoners and their families are viciously discriminated against in a host of ways, in the job and housing market, in education and public services and in access to health care, all legally. That won't change. Even the few that get this clemency won't be protected from that.

  6. The federal government will NOT even be screening all federal drug prisoners to determine who is eligible for clemency. Attorney General Holder has instead announced that criminal defense lawyers and organizations like the ACLU are being asked to bring to the government's attention cases they imagine are most deserving of clemency. Don't they have, you know, a Department of Justice for that? Depending on private organizations and attorneys to come up with the cases for possible clemency turns the whole thing into an exercise in philanthropy, not the fundamental change in governmental policy that people need, want and demand. It means that prisoners serving unduly long sentences who don't have vigilant private attorneys and advocacy organizations on their case will remain unjustly imprisoned, while those with outside friends have a chance at early release.

The bottom line is that an act of presidential clemency, while good news for the lucky hundreds or thousands of families involved, will leave no legal footprint and make no institutional impact upon the universal policy of mass incarceration. For this reason, it's exactly NOT a first step that can lead to something more. It's a dead end. At the rate the pipelines are pumping them in, their cells will be refilled in a month or two, no problem. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that this clemency initiative is nothing more than a lazy, cynical and nearly empty gesture it hopes will buy some black votes and good will in 2014 and beyond.

Is it better than nothing? Yes, of course. It's just not that much better, and we definitely DO have a right to expect much, much better. There are millions locked up. A couple thousand may be released. But a million is a thousand thousands.  The dead end of presidential clemency for a handful on the federal level simply does not scale even to the beginning of changing the institutional policies of mass incarceration.  On that level it's bogus.  It will free not one state prisoner a day earlier and initiates no processes or lasting precedents that ever will.  It will help none of the hundreds of thousands of families of former prisoners and won't affect any cases in the pipeline, which will refill the slots of those who receive clemency in weeks, and it doesn't change what police or prosecutors and courts do either.  

This is not the result of some soaring vision of justice, and cannot lead to any lasting institutional change.  It leaves the prison state completely intact, just giving the most hopeful and the most cynical something to talk about in the months leading up to another mid-term election, when the administration, and Democrats need the black vote.

It didn't have to be this way.  During the first two years of the Obama presidency, when his party had a lock on both houses of Congress, the president and congressional Democrats had a chance to write retroactive revocation of tens of thousands of sentences into its so-called Fair Sentencing Act. Despite this being a matter of desperate concern to the constituency that elected them, it was not a priority for the first black president or for the black political class at the time.  Every year since, the Obama Department of Justice has had the chance to rewrite the way it distributes federal funding to state and local law enforcement agencies to discourage mass incarceration. Every year the president had the ability to close some of its notorious federal supermax prisons, or find ways to deny funding for such things on the state level. None of this happened. In fact, while a broad citizen movement in Illinois, the president's home state finally closed a state supermax prison, Obama's latest Bureau of Prisons budget has the feds buying another unused Illinois prison for conversion into a federal supermax, ADX Thomson, or Gitmo North. The federal prison budget has grown every year president Obama has held office.

Sophisticated apologists for the president will of course chide folks who find “better than nothing” insufficient for being naive and foolish. Are they?  Were the tens of millions who elected Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 foolish for imagining the have even the right to demand better?  What about the many, many thousands of activists who gave freely of their time and efforts year in and year out to make the careers of the black political class possible, the people who called house meetings, union and church meetings?  Were the folks who went door to door, who rallied and registered voters and more to elect black aldermen, sheriffs, county commissioners, mayors, legislators and finally a black president -- the people who DID imagine and DID tell their children and their neighbors that this would make things better -- were they all just unrealistic chumps?

I used to be one of them.  They didn't say – we didn't say -- it was “better than nothing."  We told each other, and often we actually believed electing black faces to high places was a necessary step toward making things better.  Were we naïve and foolish to imagine a better world is even possible?  Or is our black political class too cynical, too corrupt, too prosperous and too lazy to share the dreams of the ordinary people they supposedly represent?

Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report and a state committee member of the GA Green Party. He lives and works in Marietta GA and can be reached via this site's contact page or at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.


Business as usual for

Business as usual for President Droneman.  Make a big splash headline about some program or initiative that will benefit the masses but read the fine print and one finds the masses will continued to get screwed over.  Business as usual for apologists/gatekeepers for him and the Dems as they laud these shams as "progress," "better than nothing," "the second coming," etc. and denigrate the few people who stopped falling for misleadership/Democrat bullshit long ago.

"The federal government will NOT even be screening all federal drug prisoners to determine who is eligible for clemency. Attorney General Holder has instead announced that criminal defense lawyers and organizations like the ACLU are being asked to bring to the government's attention cases they imagine are most deserving of clemency."

The above shows - AGAIN - how slimy and slick Obomber is.  Many prisoners won't even be aware of this clemency program depending on where they are located.  Some prisons provide more access to info than others.  How many defense lawyers will be contacting former imprisoned clients about this - especially if the client doesn't have the money to pay for lawyer's services - and most of them don't.  So, again, the poverty that put many of them in prison will prevent them from getting out.  The ACLU only has so much staff and can't possibly handle several thousands cases of people seeking clemency; processing the paperwork alone will take years.   If O-freaking-bama really meant to do anything of substance, his ass can sign one of those infamous executive orders granting clemency for these prisoners as well as an order revamping the sentencing guidelines so others in the pipeline won't face the same draconian sentences.  And don't use that excuse about being held back by Republicans.  He could have done this in 2008 and 2009 when he had a Congressional majority.  Goes to show he never meant to do shit about this issue, jobs, healthcare, or any other thing that will benefit the masses.

Clemency For Drug Offenders

Obama and his justice department have betrayed black and brown folks all along.  What makes me both sad and angry is that my mixed black daughter lives in denial and had so much hope in this 1st black man as president.  She refuses to not give him a pass due to the horrific racism of the right.  No matter how much I try to teach her about the difference of a leader like Dr. King and the total immense betrayal of BO, she will not budge in her admiration or support of him.  One day she will see.  

I am much older and from Chicago.  I saw right through this masquerade from the beginning.  My mother was a teacher.  She taught us about bandwagon politics.  So many folks just do not see that the words must match the actions to validate any kind of ethical conduct.  We are in a terrible deficit when it comes to ethical leaders across this entire world.  So terribly tragic and murderous.  40 murders in Chicago just last weekend.  Results are the truth of the cause.  Thanks for reading.  Peace 

And what about white criminal behavior

From FBI 2010 Crime Data Sheet: Offenders by Race: [Total % of Offenders: 69.5% white -- 28% Black]

HOMICIDE: white 4260 [87% victims were white ] -- Black: 4210 [94% victims were Black] 

RAPE & Sexual ASSAULT: white: 10,180 -- Black: 4925
Other SEX OFFENSES: white: 41,405 -- Black: 13,180
Aggravated ASSAULT: white: 202,275 -- Black: 106,380
Other ASSAULT: white: 659,170 -- Black: 318,115

Acts of WIFE &/or CHILD ABUSE [= Domestic Violence]: white: 56,235 -- Black: 26,470

AUTO THEFT: white: 35,010 -- Black: 18,795
ARSON: white: 6590 -- Black: 1980
Property DESTRUCTION [= Vandalism]: white: 145,285 -- Black: 46,305
DRUG OFFENSES: white: 846,735 -- Black: 404,610
INTOXICATED DRIVING: white: 927,515 -- Black 124,465 [Note: There were 13,365 DUI Vehicular Homicides in 2010 - about 85% were committed by white drunk drivers]


So based on the FBI's stats [no bastion of racial equality & justice] at-least 2/3s of US convicted prisoners should be white [FYI before 1980 at-least +60% of US inmates were in-fact white men]. But the fact is nearly 1/2 of current US prisoners are Black & about another 1/4 are Hispanic. So there's a bit more to this than 'Blacks should stop breaking the law' [FYI: everyone should stop breaking / skirting {fair & just} laws - starting w Wall St Corp Banksters & {their} corrupt {puppet} poly-tricksters, judges, cops & other public officials]. IE: NYPD plain-clothes Narc cops gunned-down unarmed Black youth Ramarley Grahm in his own home in front of his grand-mother & young siblings over a marijuana possession beef- while at the same time Wall St Bansters at USB were found guilty of laundering BILLIONSSS in drug money- but NO USB Bankster even faced jail time [IE: the DoJ found them 'too big to jail']. 

The point of the article is too many 'Boys from the Hood' [& Barrios] are locked-up for way too long for non-violent drug beefs- often for minor pot possession [ala Ramarley Grahm-FYI: these FBI stats show whites commit over 2/3s of the drug offenses]. FYI: Prisons 'teach' non-violent juvenile delinquents how to become hardened criminals. 

PS: The US Prison population has been continuously exploding [w Black & Brown youth]- even as US crime rates have fallen for the past couple of decades.