LETTER FROM WASHINGTON
To Democrats Abroad
29 July 2015
Executive Director Emeritus
As Obama’s term approaches its last year, your observer on the Potomac detects a movement of the tectonic plates of our politics. Liberal Democrats have cause both to rejoice and to regret. But, on balance, our political landscape is improving.
In part, the beneficial shifts are the product of accumulating political pressures. In part, they are being leveraged by a President who seems liberated to use the persuasive power of his bully pulpit and the legal power of the Executive to achieve some of the goals that drew him to the Presidency.
Those most far advanced are in our foreign relations. Restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba and the negotiation of an agreement with Iran to block its acquiring a nuclear weapon count as successes. His effort to re-set relations with Russia has fallen short although winning Russian support has been essential to getting Iran to accept limits on its nuclear activity.
Both changing our policy toward Cuba and toward Iran has been vigorously and loudly opposed by the Republican congress and the swarm of Republican presidential candidates. They are as fiery in their promises to overturn these achievements as they are to repeal Obamacare and to destroy Planned Parenthood. Pew polling found the Iran agreement opposed by 48% to 38% while a similar Washington Post poll found it supported by 56% to 37%. Much depends on the question asked.
But, public opinion now favors (73%) the rapprochement with Cuba rising from 40% in 1998. And, as legal challenges to Obamacare continue to fail and the number of uninsured declines, public acceptance is also growing. If, as seems probable, Democrats sustain a promised Presidential veto of any Republican measure to kill the Iran deal, it, too, will gain public acceptance.
Obama’s new approach to Cuba has removed one long persistent thorn in our relations with Latin America. His new approach to stopping Iran’s nuclear arms development has stirred up a hornet’s nest of anger from Netanyahu and his Israeli lobby in the US, despite Israel’s own considerable nuclear arsenal. And it has un-nerved the Saudis and other Middle East Sunni regimes. Shifting tectonic plates do cause tremors and earthquakes.
The other area of tectonic shift is in our administration of criminal justice. The pressure for change in both incarceration law and racial practice has built since the phasing out of our mental care facilities in the 1955 and the declaration of the war on drugs in 1971. This pressure has suddenly intensified with the explosion of ubiquitous audio and video documentation, instantly available around the world, of the repeated instances of police mistreatment of blacks and the mentally ill. Abuse routinely concealed yesterday plays out on a million screens before our eyes today.
Since 1980, the federal imprisonment rate has grown by over 500% and its cost by almost 600%. States, which account for 86% of all those incarcerated, have been staggered by the mounting costs of incarceration. With that incentive, individual states began to reform sentencing and incarceration policy. Since Texas (sic!) began that change in 2007, some 32 states have enacted comprehensive sentencing and corrections reform - usually with overwhelming bipartisan support. These reversals of past policy have saved money and reduced both crime and imprisonment.
Faced with similar unsustainable costs, alliances of conservatives and liberals in Congress and out have attempted for years to enact comparable federal legislation.
The closest to enactment is the Sensenbrenner (R)/Scott (D) House bill introduced on June 25 (HR 2944). The SAFE Justice Act is a wide ranging reform of federal criminal law that would begin to reverse the long-standing “tougher is better” philosophy that has done so much damage. It, or some negotiated version, has a decent chance of approval this year. The big hang up now is the reluctance of conservative Republican committee chairmen to give way on mandatory sentencing.
The 71 page bill ranges across the entire spectrum of our federal system of criminal justice. Among many other provisions, it gives judges greater flexibility in sentencing, reduces pre-trial detention, provides for more probation and earned release time, creation of drug, veteran, mental health and other problem solving courts, limits life sentences for drug trafficking to only the most egregious cases, expands compassionate release for lower risk geriatric and terminally ill offenders, provides de-escalation training for prison personnel and requires sentencing cost analyses to be disclosed before sentencing.
A glaring omission is the restoration of the right to vote for felons who have served their time. Nor does it address the cruel practice of solitary confinement which is estimated (there are no reliable data) to hold as many as 80,000 prisoners. Confinement averages 5 years and 40 years for one man in Louisiana while the longest such confinement in a federal prison has now been 28 years.
Indicative of the serious prospects for this bipartisan bill is that it is backed by not only the President and the Department of Justice, but also by the Koch brothers, the ACLU, House Speaker Boehner and Senator Bernie Sanders as well as the Washington Post and the New York Times. Bill Clinton, speaking of the 1994 law that did so much to accelerate the growth of our prison society, said that “I signed a bill that made the problem worse.” Hillary Clinton has repeatedly called for reform of the system but has made no mention of the SAFE Justice Act.
In parallel to the introduction of the SAFE Justice Act, likely one of his last major political undertakings, Obama launched his drive in mid-July to reform the criminal justice system with a speech to the NAACP in Philadelphia. Earlier he had granted clemency to almost 4 dozen non-violent drug offenders of the more than 30,000 non-violent prisoners who have petitioned for early release. Two days later, he became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison and meet with 6 non-violent drug offenders where he made that point, “There but for the Grace of God” - alluding to his own youthful experiments with both pot and “blow” (cocaine). And, he ordered Attorney General Lynch to review the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons, to combat poor conditions in prisons and to prepare those inside for reentry to society.
Thus, the criminal justice tectonic political plate is trembling.
But despite 204 mass shootings in the first 204 days of this year and the oceans of sympathetic tears, mounds of commemorative flowers and endless sympathy from Republican presidential candidates for the victims and their families, there is a near dead political silence about the role of easily available guns. The firearms tectonic plate is frozen. Here is a cause for liberal Democratic regret.
The President continues to call on Congress to enact effective gun regulation. Hillary Clinton has committed to it. Among the fourteen Republican presidential candidates, only Bobby Jindal of Louisiana has urged all states to strengthen their reporting of the mentally ill to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. And he spoke up only after the killing of two people in a Louisiana theater last week by a seriously mentally ill gunman from Georgia with a legally acquired gun.
There is agreement, even from the merchants of death, that guns should be denied to the mentally ill and that background checks should work. The recent shootings have illustrated the inadequacies of a system in which states repeatedly fail to report the mentally ill to the federal registry. Closing that gaping leak would greatly help. But, some 40% of gun purchases are exempt from background checks because the seller is a private party, often operating online or at a gun show. Congress, it seems, could not care less about the failures of our system of background checks and the exemptions from it.
We liberal Democrats have good reason both to rejoice at the movement of our tectonic political plates of foreign policy and criminal justice but to despair that the gun madness plate is frozen in place.