Danielle McLaughlin: Obama's quiet last acts – addressing America's drug war mis-steps

US President Barack Obama's commuting of prison sentences for drug offenders is helping address the balance between ...

US President Barack Obama's commuting of prison sentences for drug offenders is helping address the balance between rehabilitation and punishment.

OPINION: As the presidential election campaign juggernaut rolls on, President Obama is going about righting historic injustices. 

If you're old enough to have been reading newspapers in the 1970s, you will remember Mr. Asia, Martin Johnstone.  The biggest drug kingpin New Zealand has ever seen but who was ultimately murdered on the order of his right hand, Terry Clark.  Clark was a Gisbornite.  Like me. That's where the similarities end, I hope.

In its heyday, the Mr Asia drug syndicate distributed heroin into Australia and New Zealand and Clark had his sights set on the UK. It was actually uncovered by a group of Auckland Star journalists, led by Pat Booth.  In 2009, in reaction to a miniseries on the tawdry tale, Booth wrote in this newspaper about the death and destruction wrought by Clark and his crew. 

Assailing the cheapness in entertainment grounded in human tragedy, Booth reminded us of the destruction of the lives of "hundreds of New Zealanders". Of families dealing with "dead sons, missing without a trace or physically and mentally crippled by the addictions he made a fortune from" and of "daughters seduced into carrying drugs, exploited sexually and beaten when they failed".

Drug crime can cripple communities and destroy lives.  You could make the argument that some drug penalties in New Zealand aren't tough enough. For example, importing between 50 and 250 grams of class A drugs comes with a maximum 10-year sentence in New Zealand. 

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Here in the US, it's the opposite. The mandatory minimum sentence for trafficking just 50g of methamphetamine starts at 10 years.

As the hullabaloo of the presidential election dominates the collective consciousness, President Obama has been quietly putting his house in order.

One of his significant last acts of presidency has been to commute the sentences of federal prisoners.  Obama's commutations are notable for the fact that drug and non-violent offences loom large. By using his commutation power, he is seeking to right an institutional wrong.  For decades, the US criminal justice system has doled out disproportionately long sentences for drug crimes.  An infamous example is the sentencing disparity between cocaine offences (a "white collar" drug) and crack offences (a "street" drug). The drugs are of course chemical analogues. 

They are also notable for the strings that Obama attached.  Almost all the commutations include a requirement that the grantee enter supervised release for five or 10 years.  The idea being that they don't re-enter the prison pipeline, and the commutation is a meaningful new beginning.  Nearly 20 per cent of them require a stay in a residential drug treatment centre. 

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The power of a president to pardon or commute a sentence has been used in various ways, some more troubling than others.  Bill Clinton, for example, pardoned his friend (and big democratic donor) Marc Rich on the last day of Clinton's presidency. Rich got rich doing deals with Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran and apartheid South Africa.  Clinton later admitted that the pardon had not been worth the political cost.

George W. Bush commuted the sentence of a former aide, Lewis "Scooter" Libby in his last year of office.  Libby had been convicted of crimes related to lying to federal investigators during an investigation of the outing of a CIA agent, Valerie Plame. It was alleged, but never proven, that officials from Bush's own administration had outed Plame in an act of retribution, putting her life at risk. 

Obama's commutations are far less dramatic but possibly as telling about the character of the man.  The wheels of criminal justice reform are turning here.  Sentencing reform is afoot but the institutional bias remains for people sentenced years ago.

Much of this will get lost in the drama surrounding the big question of Obama's replacement.  But in a quiet and thoughtful way, President Obama is contributing to the conversation about the right mix of rehabilitation and punishment.  And he is working to create opportunity for a handful of citizens who could not achieve it any other way.

 - Sunday Star Times


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