Julie On Justice: Walk the Walk, Mr. President!

Post Date: May 1, 2013

Julie Stewart, FAMM President

Julie Stewart, FAMM President

I like to think I’m an optimistic person. And most days I wake up confident and ready to go to battle because I know FAMM is on the right side and I see a path to victory. But I admit that sometimes I get discouraged. That’s when I wish I were Queen of the Land and could simply order the elimination of stupid sentencing laws by fiat. 

Lacking dictatorial powers, I wish that at least our leaders would understand that we cannot incarcerate our nation’s drug problem away, and that drug addiction is a public health problem, not a law enforcement problem. Imagine if they would admit what we all know: that we are locking up too many people who pose no threat to public safety.

Well, lo and behold! A few weeks ago, Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech in which he said that the U.S. Justice Department was exploring “ways to give judges more flexibility in determining certain sentences.” He was singing our song! We have been arguing forever that judges, not Congress, should sentence people. 

And it got better. Holder said that in our nation’s criminal justice system, “Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long for no good law enforcement reason.” Unbelievable! The Attorney General realizes we are filling our prisons with people who don’t need to be there! And he’s in a position to do something about it. After all, he’s the top law enforcement officer in the country.

And then things got even more interesting. The White House’s Drug Czar announced a new strategy for combating illegal drugs. He said the new plan was based on “evidence-based reforms that treat our Nation’s drug problem as a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue.” He went on to say that “…we cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of the drug problem.” 

The Drug Czar said that he considered two of the Obama administration’s biggest successes to date to be reducing the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity and repealing a mandatory minimum drug sentence (crack possession) for “the first time in 40 years.”

Am I dreaming? Or did my wish just come true? The White House and the Attorney General are saying exactly what I – and the members of FAMM – have been saying for years.

What we need to find out now is whether they really believe what they say. If they do, and if they truly are proud of repealing the first mandatory minimum in 40 years, we have tons of ways that they can prove it. To start, President Obama and Attorney General Holder should immediately announce the following priorities:

  • Passage of the FAMM-backed Justice Safety Valve Act. Just last week, Representatives Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY) introduced a House version (H.R. 1695) of the bill that Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced in the Senate in March (S. 619). The bill has been endorsed by leaders and organizations from across the political spectrum, including Americans for Tax Reform, Prison Fellowship, National Association of Evangelicals, the ACLU and the NAACP. Support from President Obama and Attorney General Holder is critical to getting this bill passed.
  • Grant relief to crack defendants who didn’t benefit from the Fair Sentencing Act. FAMM supports legislation to make the 2010 law that lowered crack sentences retroactive, but that bill faces opposition in Congress. President Obama and Attorney General Holder should either make that bill a top priority, or the President should use his power to commute sentences and grant relief to every deserving prisoner who was sentenced under the old law.
  • Use executive clemency to fix all excessive sentences. The Attorney General said there are “too many” people serving lengthy sentences “for no good law enforcement reason.” Well, then, the Attorney General should let President Obama know which prisoners he has in mind and the President should commute their sentences immediately. He doesn’t even need anyone else’s input.

FAMM has plenty of other reform ideas, but the ones above would be a good start. If the President would make these three initiatives his top criminal justice priorities, he would bend the arc of justice towards thousands of people who deserve it. 

We’ll see if this story has a happy ending. The White House and the Justice Department have talked the talk. Will they walk the walk?

If they don’t, they had better hope my dream of becoming become Queen of the Land never comes true. Because if I were Queen, I would reserve the harshest punishment for those who had the power to do justice in this world – and didn’t use it.

My best,

Julie

Julie Stewart 
FAMM President