Pubdate: Sun, 27 Apr 2014
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2014 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author: Leonard Pitts Jr.
Page: B14


Leonard Pitts Jr. says the move to extend clemency to nonviolent drug 
offenders may be Barack Obama's most transformative legacy.

It swallowed people up. That's what it really did, if you want to 
know the truth. It swallowed them up whole, swallowed them up by the millions.

In the process, it hollowed out communities, broke families, stranded 
hope. Politicians brayed that they were being "tough on crime" -as if 
anyone is really in favor of crime - as they imposed ever longer and 
more inflexible sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. But the "War 
on Drugs" didn't hurt drugs at all: Usage rose by 2,800 percent - 
that's not a typo - in the 40 years after it began in 1971. The "War" 
also made America the biggest jailer on Earth and drained a trillion 
dollars - still not a typo - from the treasury.

Faced with that stunning record of costly failure, a growing 
coalition of observers has been demanding the obvious remedy. End the 
War. The Obama administration has been unwilling to go quite that 
far, but apparently, it is about to do the next best thing: Declare a 
ceasefire and send the prisoners home.

Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that the government 
is embarking upon an aggressive campaign to extend clemency to drug 
offenders. Those whose crimes were nonviolent, who have no ties to 
gangs or large drug rings, and who have behaved themselves while 
incarcerated will be invited to apply for executive lenience to cut 
their sentences short.

Nobody knows yet how many men that will be. Easily thousands.

Combined with last year's announcement that the government would no 
longer seek harsh mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug 
offenders, this may prove the most transformative legacy of Barack 
Obama's presidency, excluding the Affordable Care Act. It is a long 
overdue reform. But it is not enough. As journalist Matt Taibbi 
observes in his new book "The Divide: American Injustice in the Age 
of the Wealth Gap," Holder's Justice Department has declined, 
essentially as a matter of policy, to prosecute the bankers who 
committed fraud, laundered money for drug cartels and terrorists, 
stole billions from their own banks, left taxpayers holding the bag, 
and also - not incidentally - nearly wrecked the U.S. economy. But 
let some nobody get caught with a joint in his pocket during a 
stop-and-frisk and the full weight of American justice falls on him 
like a safe from a tenth-story window.

For instance, a man named Scott Walker is 15 years into a sentence of 
life without parole on his first felony conviction for selling drugs. 
Meantime, thug bankers in gangs with names like Lehman Brothers and 
HSBC commit greater crimes, yet do zero time.

We have, Taibbi argues, evolved a two-track system under which crimes 
committed while wearing suit and tie - or pumps - are no longer 
considered jailable offenses. Taibbi said recently on "The Daily 
Show" that prosecutors have actually told him they no longer go after 
white-collar criminals because such people are not considered 
"appropriate for jail."

Who is "appropriate"? Do you even have to ask?

Black people. Brown people. Poor people of whatever hue.

Thousands of whom are apparently coming home now. One hopes there 
will be a mobilization - government agencies, families, churches, 
civic groups - to help them assimilate into life on the outside. But 
one also hopes we the people demand reform of the hypocritical system 
that put them inside to begin with.

These men and women are being freed from insane sentences that should 
never have been imposed, much less served.

Contrary to the pledge we learned in school, it turns out we are 
actually one nation divided, with liberty and justice for some.

So yes, it is good to see the attorney general dismantle the War on 
Drugs. But while he's at it, let him dismantle the War on Fairness, too.
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