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July 2007 - The Nation (US)

Pardon Whom?

By Katha Pollitt

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Dear George W. Bush,

I know you're getting a lot of flak for commuting Scooter Libby's sentence, but I say, Stick to your guns. The man has definitely suffered enough, what with everyone making fun of his nickname and comparing him to Paris Hilton. Besides, as you pointed out, Libby's reputation has been "forever damaged" and what is a public servant without his reputation?

He'll have to join that other neocon convict Elliott Abrams, whom your dad pardoned in 1992, in sweeping the floors at Denny's. Oh, I forgot. Abrams isn't pushing a broom, he's your deputy national security adviser. I guess reputation isn't all it used to be, and if David Brooks can't figure out how to blame that on liberals, feminism and divorce he's not the man I take him for.

Now that you're taking up compassion -- Libby has young children, you reminded the heartless Democrats -- you'll find that he isn't the only convict who could use a helping hand.

It's too late for the 152 men and one woman you sent to the death chamber when you were governor of Texas, but not for the staggering number of people doing federal time as part of the misguided, destructive and futile "war on drugs." Did you know that roughly 1,600 people are arrested every day for marijuana?

As a former alcoholic you have to admit it's ridiculous to come down like a ton of bricks on the inoffensive herb while liquor floods the land, causing thousands of deaths each year. And did you know that possession of one gram of crack still commands the same sentence as 100 grams of cocaine, even though there's little difference between these substances? According to the Sentencing Project, as of this year, 97,597 people were serving time in federal prisons for drug offenses.

Add to that the roughly 250,000 in state prisons and you have one reason the United States has 2.2 million people in prison--more than any other country. (You also have the main reason that rates of incarceration for women have skyrocketed--and let's not forget that two-thirds of them are mothers, many of them single mothers, with children just as cute as the Libby kids.)

The vast majority of drug offenders are not "kingpins" -- how many kingpins could there be? They're small-time dealers, often addicts themselves, or even those dealers' relatives or girlfriends, people who were so low down in the food chain they couldn't make a bargain with prosecutors, like those scruffy street people are always doing on Law & Order.

People like Sharvonne McKinnon, mother of two, serving twenty years for minor involvement in her boyfriend's drug business, or Lidia Ramos, serving a ten-year minimum term for driving her boyfriend's car a few blocks; unbeknownst to herself, she says, it had ten kilograms of cocaine in the trunk and the destination was a drug deal. Foolish, yes. Guilty? A jury thought so. A jury thought Libby was guilty, too. You don't think compassionate conservatism means compassion just for conservatives, do you?

At the website of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, you can read more about these prisoners and others like them -- some of them ordinary poor people trapped where youthful folly collides with draconian laws, people not so different from the younger members of your own extended family, except for the "poor" and "laws" part. Others are middle-class, like Richard Paey, currently serving a twenty-five-year mandatory minimum sentence on charges stemming from his need for pain medication after a serious back injury. Maybe you could ask Rush Limbaugh about that one!

But perhaps you are looking for one big compassionate gesture that would help a lot of people all at once and not require asking your friends and relatives embarrassing questions.

With one stroke of your pen, you could pardon 200,000 young people.

These are the youths who have fallen afoul of the drug provision of the 1998 Higher Education Act, which bars federal student aid to anyone convicted of a state or federal drug offense. That includes everything from government scholarships to work-study jobs. Unlike Libby, a middle-aged high-powered lawyer of considerable worldliness and wealth, these are just teenagers, who are famous for being idiots, and they violated laws that are broken every day by millions of normal, upstanding, productive citizens, including many Republicans. I don't think that can be said of lying to the FBI. Most people, even most Republicans, take that one pretty seriously.

Also unlike Libby, these offenders have already paid their debt to society. Now they are dropping out of college, or not going--unless, of course, their parents can afford to pay full freight.

Talk about unintended consequences -- a law meant to warn kids away from drugs ends up keeping them out of college, but only if they're poor. You always say no child should be left behind.

Pardon them, and people might begin to believe you actually mean it.

But why stop there -- why not go all the way? Like Nixon going to China, you, the unofficial head of the religious right, could compassionately, conservatively begin commuting the whole mess that is the "war on drugs." It's been going on for decades, and what have we got to show for it? A bloated prison system, destroyed families, fractured communities, especially black communities.

Mass incarceration of black men has fueled nearly every problem the black community has--unemployment, gangs, violence, guns, the educational achievement gap, the absence of men from the lives of their children, HIV, hopelessness. Meanwhile, drugs are as widely available as ever, and millions of people still like to use them. As the most unpopular President in history -- your approval rating is down to 29 percent, according to the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll -- what have you got to lose? Why not go down in history as the leader who admitted that America made a colossal mistake?

Think of it as a warm-up for acknowledging that other disastrous war -- the one Libby helped you start in Iraq.

Just say yes!


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