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Federal Prosecutors Declare Mass Incarceration is Fine Will Continue; Obama & Holder Pretend Not to Notice

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    by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

    While the Attorney General grants interviews promising significant action on mass incarceration, federal prosecutors openly declare that there's nothing wrong with mass incarceration or the prison state. The Obama administration does nothing, and why should it? Who needs to roll back the prison state when you've got black faces in all those high places?

    Federal Prosecutors Declare Mass Incarceration is Fine & Will Continue; Obama & Holder Pretend Not to Notice

    by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

    Every now and then, the first black president and his first black attorney general notice the issue of mass incarceration. Often but not always in front of a black audience, they observe that too many people languish prisons for too many minor offenses for far too long, and that far too many of them are black and brown. But in this, the sixth year of this president's and this attorney general's terms, the performance is getting kind of old.

    Obama and Holder don't have magic wands, but they do possess plenty of real power. Like nobody else, the nation's top two lawyers can set the terms of discussion around policing, prosecuting and sentencing polices, and the prison state itself. The president and his Justice Department can reinterpret federal laws, can instruct federal agencies from the Department of Justice to the DEA and FBI and other federal cops. They can issue guidelines and directives speeding up or slowing down federal funding to thousands of local police departments in every corner of the land. They can promote, demote, transfer, hire and fire federal employees on every level, and create new jobs and job descriptions at whim to accomplish their policy objectives. But where there's a will, there's a won't.

    The presidential power to do something about the prison state is real, the opportunity is real. Only the presidential commitment to do something beyond its announcements, its toothless “presidential inititatives” which amount to little more than photo opportunities with no funding behind them, only the administration's commitment to roll back the prison state in any significant degree is fake.

    We've pointed out before this in Black Agenda Report how the president and his attorney general blew off the opportunity to write retroactivity into the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, either in Congress or via administrative rulemaking, and how President Obama's Justice Department went to court to ensure that up to 9,000 persons serving ridiculously long crack sentences remain in prison to this day. Now there's a new wrinkle. Even the toothless “initiatives” and announcements of the president and the vague promises of his attorney general are being publicly opposed by forces within the executive branch of government.

    In the past month, the National Association of Assistant US District Attorneys has responded to the weak suggestions of Obama and Holder about rolling back slightly the numbers and severity of mandatory minimum sentences, which like every other punitive police and prosecutorial measure are disproportionately inflicted on black and brown defendants. In a series of letters to the US Senate, to the Attorney General, to the Washington Post and to law enforcement lobbying groups like the FBI Association & Fraternal Order of Police, vicious federal prosecutors are publicly claiming that nothing about the regime of mass incarceration is broken at all. Harsh and discriminatory mandatory minimum sentences, say the federal district attorneys, are essential to “winning the war on crime” and must not be tampered with.

    In other words, the national organization of federal prosecutors have flatly and publicly rejected Obama's and Holder's timid suggestions and guidelines. Their response is to marshal police and other lobbying organizations, the so-called “law enforcement community” to oppose any attempt by Congress or the executive branch to roll back the prison state in any way, shape or form. You have to wonder.

    Why doesn't the president or voices in his administration publicly answer its “lock 'em up” prosecutors, saying something like “We were elected by the people, not you. We think mass incarceration is a failed experiment, that the American people want it discussed and reexamined, and it's our duty to make that happen.” These are only words, and talk after all, IS cheap.

    But that's precisely the kind of talk that issues from the mouths of leaders on an issue where they want to lead. That's how it's done. If you can't change the law in this Congress you start the discussion now, and start it on your terms so that you can change it in the next or the one after that or somewhere down the road. The only reasonable conclusion is that our first black president are simply not interested in leading on this issue. And why should they be?

    Barack Obama won't stand for re-election, and Eric Holder likely will not serve to the end of Obama's term. What reason do we really have to suppose that they are any less cynical htan the rest of the black political class at the top of which they sit, the agglomeration of of black mayors, sheriffs, legislators, local elected and appointed African Americans on every level?

    In a parallel universe, where black faces in those high places meant something really real, the African American sheriffs who run large and small county jails around the country would declare that nobody is going to stay 3 months in an institution of theirs without learning how to read and write. In that imaginary place, where black faces in high places really matter to the rest of us, black wardens and prison bureaucrats would acknowledge that solitary confinement is torture, that juveniles should never, ever be confined with adults, that family visits and communications with prisoners should be encouraged, even subsidized, and that prisoners deserve educational opportunities behind the walls. In a world where the black lawyers who become prosecutors and judges felt an actual responsibility to their people, African American defendants would not be selectively and more harshly charged and sentenced, and black cops would respect and protect the communities they patrol instead of aping the aggressive disrespect their white counterparts exhibit when overpolicing poor communities of color.

    In the real world, black cops are mostly socialized to act like white cops, black prosecutors and judges like white prosecutors and judges, black wardens and sheriffs like white jailers, and black politicians on up to the president himself like the white ones as well.

    This president and this attorney general didn't invent mass incarceration. It's just that the class of black political misleaders they spring from has no answers to the problem of mass incarceration, any more than they can muster an alternative to gentrification or oppose the US wars in every part of the world. Their interest in mass incarceration is a cynical one, a string to pull every now and then to reaffirm their status and prolong the careers of the black political class as the fictive representatives of all of us.

    There are about a thousand days left in the Obama administration. Things could change, but the past five years gives us no reason whatsoever to believe they will. It really looks like Barack Obama and Eric Holder will leave the prison state as they found it, squatting in the shadow of millions of black families, disrupting communities and inflicting health economic penalties and social stigma upon millions of African Americans. This will be the empty and cynical legacy of the Obama administration and of our entire black misleadership class on mass incarceration.

    Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report and a state committee member of the Georgia Green Party. He can be reached at bruce.dixon(at)

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