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The “Smarter Sentencing Act”, Wishful Thinking and White House Fakery: Obama as Prison Reformer

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A Black Agenda Radio commentary by executive editor Glen Ford

As the Smarter Sentencing Act moves through Congress, President Obama masquerades as a prison reformer. In reality, the administration “has placed legal roadblocks in the way of release for thousands” and “has no intention of limiting the scope and powers of the Incarceration State.”

The “Smarter Sentencing Act”, Wishful Thinking and White House Fakery: Obama as Prison Reformer

A Black Agenda Radio commentary by executive editor Glen Ford

“Obama’s legacy to the nation is the shrunken husk of a Constitution.”

President Obama’s spin doctors have been working overtime revising his administration’s historical record on criminal justice issues. On the most fundamental level, the Obama team can fairly be described as the most anti-civil liberties U.S. regime in modern times, having substantially destroyed the principle of due process of law through its preventive detention legislation and unprecedented abuse of World War One-era espionage laws. The Obama Justice Department takes the fascist-inspired position that Americans have no inherent Constitutional right to access to the courts. Due process, in their minds, consists of whatever process the government finds convenient. Obama’s legacy to the nation is the shrunken husk of a Constitution.

However, in the wake of widespread Black outrage at the Trayvon Martin verdict, the administration found it politically advantageous to dress up as criminal justice reformers. Obama and his attorney general mouthed words of sympathy for at least some of the millions locked away in the mostly Black and brown gulag, especially non-violent drug offenders. In truth, the Obama White House is behind the curve on criminal justice issues. Significant numbers of Republicans and lots of corporate think tanks have for some time favored scaling back the U.S. prison system, if only because it is so expensive. But, the Obama team has no intention of limiting the scope and powers of the Incarceration State. How could anyone believe that an administration that spies on virtually all of its citizens, would ever consider seriously scaling back its institutional capacity to imprison an unlimited number of people. Therefore, Obama puts forward only cosmetic and provisional proposals such as selective clemencies and commutations for a small number of inmates – but nothing that strikes at the institutional heart of the system. It is all sham and smoke, cynicism and hypocrisy.

“Obama puts forward only cosmetic and provisional proposals.”

As both Margaret Kimberley and Bruce Dixon have reported in these pages, the Obama administration has fought in the courts to keep in prison about five thousand inmates convicted under the old, 100-to-1 crack versus powder cocaine laws. Attorney General Eric Holder’s lawyers argued against making the new 18-to-1 law retroactive, thus revealing the administration’s hard core mass incarceration mentality. While thousands of mostly Black inmates languished unnecessarily in prison, a bipartisan group of lawmakers pressed forward with the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014, which has just passed major hurdles in the Senate. In addition to making reduced crack cocaine sentences retroactive, the bill would get rid of some mandatory minimum sentences – although the devil is in the details. The legislation has very broad support – just as did the crack cocaine penalties rollback bill – and is part of a growing consensus among U.S. ruling circles that the prison system is too large. Even the right-wing Heritage Foundation has offered a qualified endorsement. The truth is, the Obama administration has exerted no real leadership in this regard, but instead has placed legal roadblocks in the way of release for thousands. The president didn’t even bother to mention U.S. prisons or the Smarter Sentencing Act in his State of the Union address. Yet, a number of publications, such as the New York Law Journal, erroneously credit Obama as a prison reformer – which is an absolute fiction.

For Black Agenda Radio, I’m Glen Ford. On the web, go to BlackAgendaReport.com.

BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com

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