Obama: The Great Commuter?

speedy trial PAThere has been much talk on the internet this week about President Obama commuting the sentences of 46 individuals convicted of federal drug crimes.

The recipients are all considered non-violent drug offenders who are low risk in terms of releasing them back into the community, and include the mother of an NFL player convicted of drug dealing.

In that case, she had already served the bulk of her sentence, and had only one year left to serve, but it makes for good headlines.

It is also important to point out she had been offered a plea deal which would have been a four year sentence. Instead, she chose to go against the advice of her attorney to take the plea, and then went before a jury who convicted her, where she received a much longer sentence as a result. Moral of story: It is probably a good idea to listen to your counsel, as that is why you pay them.

In a larger sense, although I applaud the President for his actions, in reality, those 46 names constitute a small fraction of the over 35,000 cases president Obama’s legal team reviewed when considering who the lucky winners would be in this amnesty lottery.

The President was quoted as saying, “In these cases, the punishment did not fit the crime.”

Mr. President, with all due respect, one could easily say that about the majority of drug related crime convictions, especially in convictions involving marijuana.

Too often, whether due to circumstances such as the presence of weapons, or mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, or the “three strikes” rules currently in place, a judge and jury have their hands tied when meting out justice.

Take a marijuana grow operation, for example. The mere presence of weapons, whether or not they are legally obtained or even used in the commission of a crime, become the catalyst for much harsher sentencing guidelines. In other words, a gun that is perfectly legal to own for home defense becomes a weight around the neck of the defendant, even when it has no actual bearing on the charges themselves.

For the person who grows some pot in their barn, or their basement, that otherwise legally registered weapon makes it appear they are a hardened criminal bent on murder, when the actual facts of the case are nothing of the sort. In fact, marijuana users and growers rarely act violently at all, but because of strict federal guidelines, the weapon cannot be ignored and is actually treated as criminal, even though it was never used to commit a crime. Even something as innocuous as a hunting rifle– one actually used for just hunting– suddenly makes the defendant look like a modern day Al Capone, at least on paper.

Maybe the unlucky fellow has a couple of minor convictions from their past. Since these occurred before the current climate of decriminalization and legalization, on paper they appear to indicate a hardened criminal past on par with Scarface. To the average jury, this can often be subtlety inferred in such a way that it almost becomes prejudicial in the perception of the jurors. No one wants a gun toting three time loser drug dealer cruising the streets of their neighborhood.

Forty six commutations, although certainly a step in the right direction, are not even a drop in the bucket when compared with over 35,000 people currently languishing in federal prisons. It’s not even the tip of the iceberg.

Couple this with the fact that marijuana is actually legal now in 5 states, and you can see we have a real problem in terms of “punishment fitting the crime”. A state border should not be an automatic indictment, especially in a federal case. It is hardly equal treatment under the law and strikes me as being terribly inconsistent with regard to constitutional protections that should apply equally to all citizens of these United States.

Because I have been at the forefront of the marijuana legalization movement, I am particularly aware of the blatantly unfair implications of marijuana remaining on the Federal Schedule 1 Narcotics list. President Obama has repeatedly indicated he agrees with this assessment. He has publicly toyed with the notion that it’s time to remove Marijuana from Schedule 1, yet seems reluctant to follow through.

If he really feels ‘the punishment should fit the crime’, it is time for him to act. President Nixon was largely responsible for the Schedule 1 designation. President Obama can reverse the perversion of an otherwise benign plant as being on par with heroin and cocaine. He can truly make a difference in countless lives, and go down in history as the rarest of presidents by putting aside politics in the name of justice for all.

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