- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2016

As President Obama picks up the pace of commuting prison sentences for federal drug offenders, he’s releasing some of the same people that former President Bill Clinton threw the book at 20 years ago.

And while national crime rates are historically low, fresh questions are being raised about whether the new emphasis on releasing federal and state inmates — on a scale far beyond Mr. Obama’s commutations — is contributing to a spike in violent crime in major U.S. cities.

The president commuted sentences for 325 inmates in August alone, bringing to 673 the total for his presidency. More than a third of that total, 232, were serving life terms under the stiffer penalties approved during the drug wars of the 1980s and ‘90s, including the federal “three strikes” provision signed into law by Mr. Clinton in 1994.

“That’s definitely part of it,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group that promotes reforms in sentencing policy. “That [1994 law] certainly called for a certain level of drug selling — three times, life without parole.”

For example, Mr. Obama has granted commutation for Ronald Gregory Farah of Boca Raton, Florida, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1997 for smuggling 9,000 pounds of marijuana into the U.S. He had two prior drug convictions, and got the life sentence for his third offense.

It’s one of many cases of lengthy incarceration that Mr. Obama said has “ravaged” minority communities. Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said Mr. Obama deserves credit for correcting injustices and for “reminding Congress and the public what’s wrong with our sentencing laws.”

Advocates for sentencing reform say mandatory sentencing laws passed in the 1980s under President Reagan contributed more heavily than the 1994 “three strikes” law to the increase in prison populations in the U.S. and the imposition of longer prison sentences. Ms. Stewart said the 1994 law actually provided a “safety valve” that allows judges to ignore the mandatory sentences in certain cases.

Mr. Clinton, whose wife Hillary is facing a backlash in her presidential campaign among some Democratic voters over lengthy incarceration policies, has expressed regret over his role in creating longer prison sentences. He told an NAACP audience in July, “I signed a bill that made the problem worse, and I want to admit it.”

But Mr. Clinton also defended his actions when first confronted by a Black Lives Matter heckler earlier this year, saying the federal three-strikes law helped to reduce crime in the U.S. to historic lows and therefore helped black communities.

“Because of that and the background check law, we had a 46-year low in the deaths of people by gun violence,” Mr. Clinton said angrily. “And who do you think those lives were that mattered? Whose lives were saved that mattered?”

Steve Cook, president of the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, said Mr. Clinton was correct when he asserted the 1994 law reduced crime.

“The result of those laws has been to remove some very violent and dangerous drug offenders from the streets, which in turn drove down the violent crime rates,” Mr. Cook said. “[Mr. Clinton] is exactly right when he said that. It wasn’t what some groups wanted to hear.”

Some studies, such as a report by the Brennan Center for Justice in 2015, have found that mass incarceration doesn’t affect crime rates. California reduced its prison population by 23 percent from 2006 to 2012, and violent crime during that period fell 21 percent.

But Barry Latzer, professor emeritus of criminal justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said after California released 35 percent of its state and county prisoners, violent crime rates in 2015 rose in 13 of the state’s 15 biggest counties. “Whether or not this caused crime to rise in California remains a matter for debate,” he wrote in a blog post at City-Journal.org. The United States Sentencing Commission said in a report this year that half of released federal prisoners are rearrested, usually within 21 months of discharge.

Crime rates nationally have fallen steadily for the past two decades, from 79.8 “victimizations” per 1,000 people in 1993 to 20.1 per 1,000 in 2014, according to the Justice Department.

But law enforcement officials are concerned about a rise in violent crime in certain regions over the past two years. A violent crime survey in July by the Major Cities Chiefs Association shows homicides are up 15 percent in the first six months of this year in 51 cities, compared with the same period in 2015. Those cities also experienced a significant rise in robberies, aggravated assaults and nonfatal shootings.

Chicago surpassed 500 homicides this year over the Labor Day holiday, putting the city on pace to hit a murder rate not seen since the 1990s.

FBI Director James B. Comey has voiced concern about the so-called “Ferguson effect” — that rising crime rates could be due to police officers backing off in some situations to avoid being videotaped or second-guessed in potential confrontations with minorities.

“It’s not getting the attention at the national level it deserves,” Mr. Comey said in June. “I don’t know what the answer is, but holy cow, do we have a problem.”

Mr. Cook believes the U.S. is experiencing the start of a “perfect storm” of a resurgence of crime, with a large-scale release of prisoners by states and the federal government contributing to the uptick in crime in cities.

“The Obama administration has directed federal prosecutors not to use mandatory minimums against a large class of drug traffickers. You’ve got federal prosecutions dropping nationwide by 27 percent in the last five years. You’ve got the release early of tens of thousand of drug traffickers regardless of their ties to gangs or cartels. And you have several states like California releasing their prison population,” Mr. Cook said. “And you add to that the ‘Ferguson effect’; it’s the perfect storm.”

Mr. Cook also said the White House isn’t always adhering to its own stated criteria for granting clemency, releasing prisoners who couldn’t be considered “low-level” drug offenders.

Advocates for sentencing reform say the easing of mandatory minimums is not to blame for any increase in crime. Ms. Stewart said there are still about 2,000 federal inmates serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes, and their cases should be addressed.

“I just don’t understand why the public is footing the bill to keep those people in prison until they die,” she said. “The older they get, the more expensive they are to keep behind bars.”

White House counsel Neil Eggleston said more grants of clemency are coming, and Mr. Mauer said the president could conceivably commute the sentences of a total of 1,000 to 1,500 federal inmates by the time he leaves office in January.

“It’s hardly trivial, but given the scale of drug offenders in federal prison, there could be many more people deserving of consideration who won’t make it,” Mr. Mauer said.

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