Thursday, September 27, 2012

Obama's record on criminal justice

Once again, reading the crazy wingnut sites has paid off in finding information you're not likely to see elsewhere. This time, it comes from an article in the Daily Caller that labels President Obama as "shamefully soft on drugs and crime."

Apparently the web site got ahold of the opposition research file that Jack Ryan developed when he was running against Obama for the Senate in 2004. You may remember that Ryan dropped out of that race as a result of a sex scandal. Prior to that, he had combed Obama's record in the Illinois Senate for his position on various issues related to crime and drugs.

Given that my professional life is focused on these issues - especially as they relate to young people - I am particularly grateful for this information. I have felt that this is not a topic that President Obama addresses often enough.

So contrary to finding President Obama's record "shameful," I was delighted to hear about it. Here are some highlights:
  • Starting in 1997, the Chicago Tribune reported Obama was critical of a bill aimed at juvenile felons that would have created “a state database, complete with fingerprints,” given victims the right to testify during sentencing, added aggravated battery with a firearm to the list of crimes that would require trial as an adult, given police a full 24 hours to hold suspects without charges and converted youth convicts to adult sentences if they failed to “complete a juvenile sentence satisfactorily.” “What we haven’t addressed in this bill is the preventative side that prevents kids from getting into the system in the first place,” Obama insisted then, in explaining his opposition.
  • By 1999, Obama had joined an effort to examine completely overhauling the state’s criminal code following what Jack Ryan’s researchers called “state lawmakers’ ‘zeal to get tough on crime.’” Obama argued that lawmakers were too often pushing through tough-on-crime legislation, complicating the criminal code. “It’s very hard for elected officials to resist a bill that enhances penalties for drug offenses because nobody’s pro-drug.”
  • On the subject of the death penalty, The Chicago Weekend reported that on September 18, 1999, Obama made his support for a moratorium on executions clear during a town hall meeting at the Alpha Temple Missionary Baptist Church. “I was a main sponsor of a bill that would have put an immediate moratorium on the death penalty,” Obama said then. “We need to put more resources into the Public Defender’s office, so they can do things like DNA testing and take other means to make sure you’ve got the right person before you consider the death penalty.”
  • Jack Ryan’s opposition research also highlights a case that captivated Chicago in November 1999, when several black students were expelled from a Decatur, Ill., high school for fighting. While the school board stood by its decision, Rev. Jesse Jackson led a charge to have the students reinstated. Obama refused to give a position on the case to The State Journal-Register, but he did introduce ”legislation against zero-tolerance policies” in the midst of the controversy.
  • That same month [May 2001], Obama “voted against a bill making it easier to impose death sentences on gang bangers,” says the Ryan research. “People would be eligible for the death penalty if they kill someone to help their gang,” reported The Associated Press. “Under the legislation, gang activity would be one of many possible aggravating factors that trigger a death sentence.” The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Obama’s opposition, in part, was racially motivated. “Sen. Barack Obama (D-Chicago), who voted against the plan, said it would hit black and Hispanic neighborhoods hardest, and that lawmakers should quit creating tougher criminal penalties on the basis of one or two particular incidents,” reported the Sun-Times.
  • In March 2003, Obama reiterated his calls to weaken penalties for drug crimes. He told N’DIGO, an African-American paper, that “federal mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent offenses has been a mistake, Obama said, at both the state and federal levels.”
Through all this what we see is then-State Senator Obama getting into the weeds of the issues that plague our criminal justice system...inadequate funding of public defenders, the injustice of how the death penalty is applied, treating juveniles like adults, zero tolerance policies in our schools, mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, and the lack of focus on prevention.

And so I find myself strangely grateful to the Daily Caller. This is one area where I have questioned whether or not I support our President in terms of specific policies. All of this shows that he is basically on the same page as those of us fighting to bring some justice back in to our criminal justice system.


  1. That's the opposition research? He sounds nuanced. I guess you can use a Nobel Prize against an opponent as well if anyone thinks this would work. Then again, a Massachusetts senator is using Indian heritage as a point of attack and is still polling over 40%. I'd like to think our electorate is a bit more advanced than that.


  2. Thanks for providing such valuable information regarding Obama's record on criminal justice. This article is too good and useful for everyone.

  3. Well, as president he also signed the Fair Sentencing Act, getting rid of the disparity in jail sentences between powder and crack cocaine. That is yet another "Big Effing Deal" which never gets mentioned by the Purity Posse.

    All the people who scream nonstop about Anwar Al-Awlaki seem to spend very little time advocating for due process for poor and minority alleged offenders here in the United States. I suppose that's because the cops don't bother to put the names of unarmed amputees in wheelchairs on an official list before they open fire on them and kill them.

  4. Do I need to go to criminal justice colleges to have a better understanding of this subject?