Pubdate: Sat, 13 Aug 2016
Source: Chico Enterprise-Record (CA)
Copyright: 2016 Chico Enterprise-Record
Note: Letters from newspaper's circulation area receive publishing priority
Author: Cynthia Tucker
Note: Title by newshawk


On a Sunday morning in late July, in a small town in southwest 
Alabama, Barbara Moore Knight gave her fellow church members news 
that brought spontaneous applause and murmurs of "Amen!" She told 
them that her son, James LaRon Knight, was among the drug felons 
whose sentences had been commuted by President Barack Obama the week before.

In 2004, Knight was convicted of conspiracy to sell cocaine. Although 
the crime was nonviolent, he was sentenced to more than 24 years in a 
federal prison. The sentence was a travesty, an unduly harsh 
punishment for a family man never accused of running a substantial 
criminal enterprise.

Knight, 48, is among countless black Americans ruined by the long, 
costly and punitive effort to stamp out recreational use of illegal 
drugs. The owner of a barbershop in suburban Atlanta, he was 
convicted on the testimony of acquaintances who found themselves 
caught in the spiderweb of the criminal justice system and offered 
him up as a way to appease authorities. There was no direct evidence 
that Knight possessed or sold banned substances.

Recognizing the havoc wreaked by the so-called war on drugs, 
especially in black America, Obama has worked to ameliorate its 
effects. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the 
Clemency Project, which aims to reduce the disproportionately long 
federal sentences handed out to hundreds of thousands of nonviolent 
drug offenders over the past decade or so. The president has reduced 
or ended the prison sentences of more than 560 federal prisoners so 
far, most of them convicted of nonviolent drug-related crimes.

Obama also helped persuade Congress to reduce the inequities in 
federal drug-sentencing policies, which had punished those convicted 
of handling crack cocaine more harshly than those sentenced for 
powdered cocaine. The old law gave a person convicted of possessing 5 
grams of crack, which was more prevalent in poor black neighborhoods, 
a mandatory five-year prison sentence. But those who possessed 
powdered cocaine, used mostly by more affluent whites, had to have 
100 times as much to draw the same sentence. The new federal law 
substantially narrows the disparity.

Given increasing awareness of the costs of the war on drugs and of 
the inequities that still haunt the criminal justice system, you'd 
think that the Clemency Project would have been greeted with 
universal support. The burden of mass incarceration falls heavily on 
the shoulders of black Americans, who are less likely than whites to 
use illegal drugs, according to research, but more likely to go to 
prison for drug crimes anyway.

Still, there are many prosecutors and conservative politicians who 
have denounced Obama's push against mass incarceration. U.S. Sen. 
Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., an early supporter of Donald Trump's 
presidential bid, rushed to condemn Obama's most recent commutations, 
claiming the president "continues to abuse executive power in an 
unprecedented, reckless manner." Advertisement

So the prejudices - the preconceived notions, the stereotypes, the 
outright racism - continue. The tragic heroin epidemic has prompted 
an outpouring of sympathy and calls for a less punitive approach to 
illegal drugs, but heroin users are overwhelmingly white. That 
compassion has not been extended to black Americans, who are still 
regarded as more drug-addled, more violent, more dangerous and more 
deserving of lengthy prison terms.

Barbara Moore Knight describes herself as "still on cloud nine" after 
the news of her son's early release. "I really do thank God for 
working through President Obama," she said.

Her obvious joy notwithstanding, her family has paid dearly for 
America's obsession with treating nonviolent drug crimes as 
existential threats to the republic. Her son's marriage fell apart 
after his incarceration; he missed crucial years with his sons, who 
are now 27 and 14. Obama's clemency cannot restore those pieces of a man's life.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom