Pubdate: Sun, 10 Feb 2008
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Page: E - 6
Copyright: 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.
Author: Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Marijuana - Medicinal)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


When Hillary Rodham Clinton announced her campaign for the Senate in 
2000, she declared - emphatically, according to an interviewer - that 
she supported the death penalty.

When Barack Obama first ran for the Illinois state Senate in 1996, he 
said in a campaign questionnaire that he opposed capital punishment.

Their positions seemed to reflect their political roots - Clinton, 
the moderate "New Democrat," a term she has used to describe herself; 
Obama, the insurgent who got his start as a community organizer.

But times change, and so do candidates, particularly on issues that 
loom as potential minefields for Democrats with presidential 
ambitions. It's a less delicate topic for Republicans, whose leading 
candidates - with the exception of maverick Rep. Ron Paul - espouse 
time-tested, nearly identical law-and-order platforms.

With the Democratic nomination still up in the air after the Super 
Tuesday primaries, the evolving stances of Clinton and Obama on crime 
and punishment offer a point of comparison for voters in upcoming 
primaries, including Tuesday's votes in Virginia, Maryland and the 
District of Columbia.

Although Clinton and Obama, both lawyers, have some important 
differences, their positions on two of the most politically sensitive 
crime issues - the death penalty and gun control - have converged.

By the time Obama ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, he was not 
advocating abolition of the death penalty, but was saying the system 
of investigating and prosecuting capital crimes was so flawed that 
the nation should declare a moratorium on executions, like the one 
imposed in Illinois by Republican Gov. George Ryan. Obama has 
abandoned that position as a senator, accepts the death penalty for 
the most heinous crimes, and calls for reforms like those he 
championed in Illinois to guard against wrongful convictions, such as 
the tape-recording of all police interrogations.

Clinton hasn't abandoned her support of capital punishment. But her 
campaign prefers to emphasize her work on the Innocence Protection 
Act, a 2004 law that set guidelines for federal prisoners' access to 
DNA evidence and provided funding for state DNA testing.

On gun control, Obama answered the same 1996 Illinois questionnaire 
by endorsing a statewide ban on handguns. He soon disavowed that 
position, claiming that a staffer had filled out the survey in error, 
but he was still calling for a national ban on carrying handguns as a 
U.S. Senate candidate in 2004, according to a Chicago Tribune report.

In the Senate, however, Obama has taken a measured position similar 
to Clinton's, advocating what he calls common-sense restrictions on 
guns, including a restoration of the federal ban on assault weapons, 
while promising to protect hunters and crack down on illegal dealers.

Both candidates acknowledged the clout of the gun lobby at a debate 
in Nevada last month, when Clinton backed away from a 2000 campaign 
pledge to support a national registry of all handgun sales, and Obama 
agreed that the proposal would be politically impossible.

The two differ on crime-related issues that have a lower profile but 
affect many thousands of prisoners, most of them minorities - the 
disparity between sentences for offenses involving crack and powder 
cocaine, and the merits of federal mandatory-minimum sentencing laws. 
On both, Clinton lines up with the prosecution, Obama with the defense.

Such disagreements scarcely exist on the Republican side. John 
McCain, Mitt Romney (who dropped out of the race Thursday) and Mike 
Huckabee are equally fervent in their support of the death penalty, 
opposition to gun control, allegiance to the war on drugs and 
abhorrence of liberal judges, while occasionally accusing one another 
of backsliding.

One note of dissent comes from Huckabee, the former Arkansas 
governor, who opposes three-strikes sentencing laws, saying they have 
"created a system that is overrun with people, and the cost is 
choking us." But the real dissident in the Republican race is Paul, 
the Texas libertarian, who opposes the death penalty, favors drug 
decriminalization and thinks the federal government has far too big a 
presence in law enforcement.

"All issues of life and violence and crime and murder are dealt with 
at the local level," Paul says on his campaign Web site. He joins 
other Republicans in condemning gun control and cites it as a reason 
to support his resolution to end U.S. membership in the United 
Nations, "protecting us from their efforts to tax our guns or disarm 
us entirely."

It's true that most crime is prosecuted locally. But any president 
can exert a powerful influence on crime policies by backing or 
blocking legislation on wiretapping, guns, corporate wrongdoing or 
defendants' rights; by appointing judges, the attorney general, U.S. 
attorneys, and members of agencies like the U.S. Sentencing 
Commission; and by deciding whether federal prosecutors should 
chiefly target gangs, drugs, pornography or securities fraud.

Crime is seldom a prominent issue in presidential primaries, largely 
because the front-runners in each party typically take similar 
positions. But the subject can explode on Democrats in a November election.

The prime example was in 1988, when Massachusetts Gov. Michael 
Dukakis, who had led Republican Vice President George Bush in early 
opinion polls, came under withering attack for his support of a 
furlough program that allowed a convicted murderer named William 
Horton - dubbed "Willie" in campaign ads - to leave prison in 1986 
and rape a Maryland woman.

Dukakis was also the last major-party nominee to oppose the death 
penalty. He was hurt politically when he responded without apparent 
emotion to a debate question about whether he would favor execution 
for someone who raped and murdered his wife.

Bill Clinton, by contrast, interrupted his 1992 presidential campaign 
and flew back to Arkansas for the execution of a brain-damaged killer 
named Rickey Ray Rector. As president, Clinton signed a 1994 crime 
bill that included a major expansion of the federal death penalty; 
according to the New York Times, first lady Hillary Clinton lobbied 
fellow Democrats for that provision. Bill Clinton also signed a 1996 
law restricting state prisoners' ability to appeal their convictions 
and sentences in federal court.

The Democratic Party followed his lead, supporting the death penalty 
in its 1992 and 1996 platforms under Clinton and in 2000 under Al 
Gore before removing the plank in 2004 at the request of nominee John 
Kerry, according to published reports. What position the 2008 
platform will take is uncertain, but of the remaining Democratic 
candidates, only former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel opposes capital punishment.

President Clinton also sided with law enforcement on drug policies 
and attacked California's 1996 medical marijuana initiative, winning 
a suit to shut an Oakland cannabis dispensary in a case that reached 
the Supreme Court.

Hillary Clinton and Obama appear to have a different perspective and 
have both condemned federal raids on California patients and 
suppliers, though they have not endorsed legalization of medical 
marijuana or federal immunity for patients in California and states 
with similar laws. The Republican candidates, except for Paul, 
support the federal raids.

The Democrats' clearest differences involve sentencing for drug 
crimes, including the disparity between terms for crack cocaine 
offenses, which affect mostly black prisoners, and terms for powder 
cocaine, which affect mostly whites.

When the Sentencing Commission voted in November to lower sentencing 
guidelines for crack-related crimes, and bring them closer to 
sentences for powder cocaine, Obama favored applying the new terms 
retroactively to current prisoners, while Clinton opposed it, saying 
the change should affect only future cases. The commission voted for 
retroactivity in December, allowing 19,500 federal inmates to ask 
judges for sentence reductions, about two years in most cases.

Clinton has also questioned Obama's proposal to scrap some of the 
more than 170 federal mandatory-minimum laws, which require judges to 
impose specified prison sentences, most commonly for drug crimes.

Noting that the laws mostly affect minorities and have had many 
critics, including the late Supreme Court Chief Justice William 
Rehnquist, Obama has attacked them as unfair to defendants and unduly 
restrictive on judges, but he has stopped short of calling for a 
wholesale repeal. Instead, he promises to review all mandatory 
minimums and try to eliminate those he considers too harsh.

Beyond specific issues, the two differ somewhat in their approaches, 
said Jesselyn McCurdy, an attorney on national legislation for the 
American Civil Liberties Union, which lobbies lawmakers but does not 
endorse candidates.

"Clinton is more in the moderate column on these crime issues than 
Obama," McCurdy said. She said Clinton often seems torn between her 
awareness of injustice and her sense that crime issues are dangerous 
for Democrats, while Obama, "because of his background as a community 
organizer, I think, is even more sensitive to concerns" about the 
justice system.

But the variations within each party are minor on the most important 
crime-related issue for a president - the judges he or she is likely 
to appoint - said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the 
prosecution-oriented Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento.

On that subject, he observed, "the difference between the parties is huge."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake