Some People Who Shouldn’t be in Jail Might Get Out a Little Early

So, this is potentially pretty great news.  After voting to reduce prison sentences for certain drug offences earlier this year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has voted unanimously to retroactively apply these changes to prisoners who have already been sentenced.  This means that more than 46,000 inmates could see their sentences cut by around 2 years each.

The decision is a small sign of progress for a system that has long imposed overly-long sentences on drug offenders, especially for those convicted on non-violent offenses or those who played a peripheral role in deals involving a large quantity of drugs.  But, it is not a complete fix, and honestly, it is not even close:

In fact, many federal judges have expressed vocal outrage over schemes that bind them to sentencing low-level defendants like kingpins. That fundamental scheme hasn’t been changed by today’s fix. Since the mid-1980s, these drug sentencing laws have placed an over-emphasis on quantities of drugs rather than a defendant’s role in the crime. That means that a person involved in an offense that involved 50 grams of methamphetamine could get 40 years in prison, regardless of whether they served as mastermind of the deal or a low-level courier of money.

The Sentencing Commission and the U.S. Justice Department would both like to see this scheme changed. But for that, they have to wait for an act of Congress, since even the Sentencing Guidelines are tied to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. “The real solution rests with Congress, and we continue to support efforts there to reduce mandatory minimum penalties, consistent with our recent report finding that mandatory minimum penalties are often too severe and sweep too broadly in the drug context, often capturing lower-level players,” Saris said in January.

Two bipartisan bills to reform these laws are still pending in both houses of Congress.

But, any amount of progress, however small, is still a good thing.  The first 8,000 inmates eligible for a review of their sentence will appear before a judge in November 2015.  If every eligible inmate is awarded the maximum sentence reduction, it would mean a total of 83,525 fewer years behind bars, and would translate to huge savings for a prison system already short on funds.  But, just as importantly, it would be a small bit of justice for people who were penalized far more than they should have been.

However, one obstacle remains:

Congress has the authority to block both amendments by Nov. 1 of this year.

It would not be surprising if hardliners in Congress (especially those in the pockets of private prison companies) decided to stand firmly in favor of draconian drug sentencing and attempt to block the amendments from taking effect.  Fortunately, this Congress has a history of sitting on their hands instead of taking action.  And this is one instance where their inaction could actually do some good.  It would be even better if they would act and pass the proposed reform bills, but that may be too much to hope for.

Of course, none of this would be an issue in the first place if the U.S. did not have such severe penalties for drug offenses on the books.  Nor would it be an issue if marijuana were legalized (or at least decriminalized) since most drug offences involve marijuana rather than “scarier” drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, or heroin.  Sadly, change comes slowly.  But, it appears that change is indeed coming.  And that is a good thing.

Republicans: “In God We Trust…and Fuck Poor People.”

The Pennsylvania State Capitol was designed in...

The Key to Ending the Jobs Crisis?

As we all know, the United States of America is in the midst of a major economic slump.  People are losing their homes and unemployment remains high, hovering around 9% (ignoring of course the millions of people who are either underemployed or have given up looking for work).  This economic turmoil led to massive victories for Republicans a year ago.  They now control the House and have almost eliminated the Democratic majority in the Senate.  They were elected due in large part to their promises to fix the economy and get people back to work.

This dedication to job creation was summed up by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), who made this bold declaration at the beginning of the current Congressional session:

“Each day, we will hold ourselves accountable by asking the following questions: Are our efforts addressing job creation and the economy; are they cutting spending; and are they shrinking the size of the federal government while protecting and expanding individual liberty?  If not, why are we doing it?”

While I certainly don’t agree with most of Cantor’s ideas regarding spending cuts, and would debate him as to the needs for shrinking government, I did have a certain amount of respect for his rhetoric.  He seemed like he was speaking for a party that was determined to get things done, however terrible those things may be.  He and his GOP brethren apparently recognized the need to address the needs of the working (and not-working) people of this country.  These were the words of a party that was done playing games and was ready to get down to business.

Well, as it turns out, the games were just beginning.  In the year that they have been in office, the GOP has not introduced a single bill aimed at creating jobs.  And, they have also consistently resisted any Democratic efforts to address the jobs crisis, voting against President Obama’s jobs plan as a whole, and again and again as it is split into increasingly smaller parts.

But, this week marked a new pinnacle for the GOP as they continued to ignore the poor and unemployed people of this country that they swore would be their top priority.  House Republicans, specifically Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA), have introduced a bill reaffirming that “In God We Trust” remain the official motto of the United States.

Even if we ignore the fact that “In God We Trust” has already been the official national motto since 1956, and that it was reaffirmed in 2002 (and again in 2006), the fact that this is what the Republicans in Congress are choosing to spend their time on, especially after their vow to work on the jobs crisis, is completely ludicrous.  Even President Obama weighed in, according to an article in the Washington Post:

With all that time on their hands, President Obama said, the lawmakers should be moving on aspects of the American Jobs Act.

“In the House of Representatives, what have you guys been doing, John?” Obama said, calling out House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

“You’ve been debating a commemorative coin for baseball. You’ve had legislation reaffirming that ‘In God We Trust’ is our motto. That’s not putting people back to work,” Obama said. “I trust in God, but God wants to see us help ourselves by putting people back to work.”

Despite the protest from the President, it seems that even many members of his own party approved of the bill.  It passed by a vote of 396-9, meaning that this idiocy is about the only thing that Congress can reach a consensus on lately.  But, at least Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), one of the nine who voted against the measure (including 7 other Democrats and a single Republican), was able to see through all the bullshit:

Why have my Republican friends returned to an irrelevant agenda? And yet here we are, back to irrelevant issue debates, the kind of thing people do when they have run out of ideas, when they have run out of excuses, when they have nothing to offer a middle class that is hurting and that has run out of patience… This is simply an exercise in saying, ‘We’re more religious than the other people, we’re more godly than the other people, and by the way, let’s waste time and divert people’s attention from the real issues that we’re not dealing with,’ like unemployment.

Forbes apparently thinks that the motto can provide a little boost to the downtrodden, saying, “Our citizens need that kind of hope, and that kind of inspiration.”  I wonder if he is aware of the irony of trying to inspire people who don’t have any money with a motto that appears…on money.  Besides, wouldn’t a truly godly person spend a little less time shoving his religion on everyone, and a little more time actually trying to help out people in need?  I think what would really give the people some hope is a jobs plan.  Maybe they should be working on that instead.