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Obama Commutes Dozens of Sentences, Can His Prison Reform Plan Repair Damage ‘War on Drugs’ Did to Black Community?

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With roughly a year and a half remaining in his administration, President Obama has decided to take up the issue of criminal justice reform by visiting a federal prison and commuting the sentences of dozens of nonviolent drug offenders. The issue is timely, given that the war on drugs and “tough on crime” sentencing schemes have left the U.S. with the largest prison population in the world and little to show for it. Particularly, Black communities—the president’s base—have been irreparably damaged, with families separated from their loved ones, and children growing up without their parents.

While there is a sense that these initiatives are a good first step, and better than nothing at all, much more must be done, and a great deal more is being left on the table.

Obama recently announced his decision to visit El Reno federal prison in Oklahoma— a medium security facility housing 1,300 inmates—marking the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to a federal institution. Obama will tour the facility with Shane Smith, the founder of VICE, and the visit with prisoners, staff and officials will be made into an HBO documentary airing in the fall.

“There’s an emerging consensus in this country—on both the right and the left—that the way we treat criminal offenders is utterly broken and weakening our society in profound ways,” Smith said. “Visiting El Reno with President Obama—the first-ever visit to a federal prison by a sitting president—will give our viewers a firsthand look into how the president is thinking about this problem, from the policy level down to one on one conversations with the men and women living this reality. It’s going to be fascinating.”

“I am really interested in the possibilities, the prospect of bipartisan legislation around the criminal justice system,” the president told reporters recently. “And we’ve seen some really interesting leadership from some unlikely Republican legislators very sincerely concerned about making progress there.”

In conjunction with the prison visit, President Obama is commuting the sentences of over 46 nonviolent drug offenders in the coming weeks (14 of whom had life sentences), a move designed to underscore the president’s commitment to criminal justice reform.

“These men and women were not hardened criminals,” Obama said in a video posted on the White House Facebook page. “Their punishments didn’t fit the crime.”

As the Boston Globe reported, the move has brought Obama’s total commutations to 89, more than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, who commuted 226 sentences during his time as president. Further, Obama has now commuted more sentences than the last four chief executives combined.

However, thoughtful critics suggest that far more is necessary. For example, writing for Your Black World, Dr. Boyce Watkins suggests that while doing a little is better than doing nothing at all, it is not the same as doing what is necessary.

“The fact remains that the War on Drugs led to the incarceration of tens of thousands of Americans, many of whom still languish in prison cells for petty drug crimes committed many years ago,” Watkins said. “To use the old fashioned model of commutation to solve this 21st century holocaust is like cleaning up a Chicago snow storm with a teaspoon.”

Writing for Yahoo News, Michael Isikoff suggests President Obama is the Scrooge of pardons, overly reluctant to use his power due to a “determination to avoid controversies” of the type experienced by Bill Clinton. Isikoff reports that Obama has issued 64 pardons (not to be confused with commutations), fewer than any president since Garfield. The pardons Obama has issued have been, according to critics, “largely trivial, and missed opportunities to correct past injustices or excesses in the criminal justice system.”

A case in point is Sala Udin, a former civil rights Freedom Rider who has asked Obama for a pardon. In 1970, Udin was convicted on interstate firearm charges for keeping an unloaded rifle in his car, and served eight months in federal prison. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist was on his way from Mississippi, and used the rifle as protection from the Ku Klux Klan.

Meanwhile, in addition to the president’s recent actions, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has changed the guidelines for drug offenders, resulting in retroactive sentence reductions for over 9,500 people, three-fourths of them people of color. Further, lawmakers and policy advocates, liberal and conservative alike, are pushing for criminal justice reforms as the crime rate has fallen dramatically in recent decades.

Reuters reports that several bills with bipartisan sponsorship are waiting in Congress, but have stalled due to inaction and the resistance from older, “tough on crime” lawmakers. For example, the Smarter Sentencing Act, sponsored by Tea Party Senator Mike Lee and Democrat Richard Durbin, would abolish mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. The Corrections Act would allow some prisoners to reduce their sentences by a quarter through jobs and other programs in prison. In addition, the SAFE Justice Act would relegate mandatory minimum sentences to drug kingpins, and allow prisoners to earn reduced sentences by participating in programs while incarcerated.

The war on drugs has been years in the making, and has been a bipartisan effort, so perhaps it is unrealistic to believe that the actions of one president can undo the damage of American mass incarceration. Yet, with eighteen months left in his presidency, Obama still has much time to right some of these wrongs.

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One thought on “Obama Commutes Dozens of Sentences, Can His Prison Reform Plan Repair Damage ‘War on Drugs’ Did to Black Community?

  1. Avery Jarman says:

    When he releases drug/poison distributors from prison, what messages is Mr. Obama sending to mature, responsible, loving, caring moms and dads living in struggling communities and neighborhoods?

    What is Mr. Obama saying to single-moms and/or dads who everyday are faced with stresses and challenges of keeping their children safe from physical or emotional harm, and the anti-social influences of The Street culture that a irresponsible Baltimore mom failed to protect her young teen son from?

    *Restore Pride In Parenting; End Child Abuse & Neglect*.

    *Victims of Horrific Child Abuse; Young American Kendrick Lamar Boldly Speaks About Child Abuse, The Seeds of Poverty and Crime*.

    With all due respect to my American neighbors of African descent, the oppression of humans that led to racism and slavery has been replaced with a new form of human oppression that impedes and deprives many American children from experiencing a safe, fairly happy American kid childhood.

    In his 2015 Grammy award winning Rap Performance titled "I", Kendrick Lamar writes, *"I've been dealing with depression ever since an adolescent."*.

    During a January 20, 2011 LAWeekly interview (Google search) Kendrick, born in 1987, the same year songwriter Suzanne Vega wrote a song about child abuse and *VICTIM DENIAL* that was nominated for a Grammy award, he told the interviewer:

    *"Lamar's parents moved from Chicago to Compton in 1984 with all of $500 in their pockets. "My mom's one of 13 [THIRTEEN] siblings, and they all got SIX kids, and till I was 13 everybody was in Compton," he says."*.

    *"I'm 6 years old, seein' my uncles playing with shotguns, sellin' dope in front of the apartment. My moms and pops never said nothing, 'cause they were young and living wild, too. I got about 15 stories like 'Average Joe.'"*.

    It seems evident to me Kendrick identified the source of his depression, the roots of poverty, the child abuse/maltreatment that prevented him, his brothers, sisters, cousins, neighborhood friends, elementary and JHS classmates from enjoying a fairly happy, safe Average Joe and Josie American kid childhood.

    Seems the adults responsible for raising the children in Kendrick's immediate and extended family placed obstacles in their children's way, causing their kids to deal with challenges and stresses young minds are not prepared to deal with…*nor should they or any other children be exposed to and have to deal with.*.

    It seems evident to me these PARENTAL INTRODUCED obstacles and challenges cause some developing children's minds to become tormented and go haywire, not knowing *OR NOT CARING ABOUT* right from wrong…because as the mature, young victims of child abuse realize their parents introduced them to a life of pain and struggle, totally unlike the mostly safe, happy life the media showed them many American kids were enjoying. *RESENTMENT*

    I cannot speak for anyone else, but if I was raised in Kendrick's family I would most likely be silently peeved at my parents for being immature irresponsible "living wild" adults who deprived me of a safe, happy childhood.

    Though like many victims of child abuse, most likely I would deny my parents harmed me, seeking to blame others for the pain my parents caused to me.

    I wonder how little Kendrick and his classmates reacted when their elementary school teacher introduced the DARE presenter and they learned about the real dangers of drugs and how they harm people, including their parents?

    In a Oct 25, 2012, LAWeekly interview (Google search) Kendrick talks about being a SIX-YEAR-OLD child who was not able to trust and rely on his mom…essentially he speaks about being emotionally abandon by his own mom.

    Kendrick shares his experiences about feeling lonely, which if you read up on Cognitive Dissonance that Dr. Joy Degruy writes about in her book, *"Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing (PTSS)"*, is it perfectly understandable why Kendrick feels lonely.

    Search Google "Post traumatic Disorder Dr Joy de Gruy Leary – YouTube" to watch a very disturbing yet enlightening 1:21:00 lecture about "Cognitive Dissonance" and how it harms developing kids like Kendrick. Dr. DeGruy does an excellent job describing how "CD" helped perpetuate the human ignorances we call racism and slavery.

    Dr. DeGruy also describes how using our common sense, we should be able to understand how "CD" can negatively impact developing children like Kendrick Lamar (born 1987), as well as Tupac Shakur (born 1971) and Shawn 'Jay Z Carter' (born 1969), to name a few more victims of horrific child abuse.

    Early in my police career when I was assigned to the Brooklyn community *Shawn 'Jay Z' Carter* raps/writes about attempting destroy by selling poison to people living and working in his community, and rapping about engaging in extremely harmful anti-social behaviors designed to protect his drug operation from rival gangs in adjoining neighborhoods, a few of my training officers advised me to be prepared to experience "culture shock."

    I did find out what "culture shock" is, though it was not a culture of violence and harmful anti-social activities many were insinuating I would be shocked by.

    The aspect of this Brooklyn, NY community that *shocked me to the core* was witnessing children being emotionally scarred by a *"American Sub-Culture of Child Abuse/Neglect"* that Kendrick Lamar raps and speaks about some twenty-five years after I first witnessed the *"American Sub-Culture of Child Abuse/Neglect"* that today CONTINUES emotionally damaging many developing children and their communities.

    I personally witnessed the emotional trauma and physical pain a young, neglected, unsupervised, Shawn 'Jay Z' Carter is responsible for causing, and its aftermath, leaving a community populated by mostly peaceful people fearing for their safety on a 24/7 basis, which are the hours Shawn's crew/gang were selling community harming substances.

    During the twelve years I served this community I met hundreds of peaceful people who were just as shaken, upset and deeply disturbed as I was by the daily displays of violence and other anti-social activities mostly caused by teens and adults who were victims of childhood abuse and neglect.

    I was lucky, at the end of my workday I could leave the community, returning to a more peaceful residential community were concerns for me and my family's safety were significantly lower.

    However, virtually all of my civilian co-workers, mostly loving, competent moms living in this community were not as fortunate. They were burdened with stresses and challenges my parents did not face to any significant degree.

    The added stresses and challenges my peaceful co-workers faced was preventing their children from being negatively influenced by abused/neglected/unsupervised children being raised and nurtured by immature, "living wild" teen moms and young women who irresponsibly begin building families before they acquired the skills, maturity, PATIENCE and means to independently provide for their family of developing children.

    Reading Kendrick's background, if you have any compassion for kids, you have to feel horrible for a *FIRST GRADE school child* who can't depend on his mom to be there for him, a mom who exposes him to things *kids should not have to witness and deal with in their young minds.*.

    Kendrick has taken a bold first step by revealing his mother (and father) made poor choices that deprived him, his brothers and sisters from experiencing a safe, fairly happy Average Joe or Josie American kid childhood…

    *YET NO ONE IS LISTENING TO KENDRICK….WHY?*.

    *#ProtectKidsFromIrresponsibleCaregivers*
    –o

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