Dershowitz: Obama's Crack Cocaine Commutations a Step in Right Direction

Thursday, 19 Dec 2013 08:00 PM

By Greg Richter

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Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz praised President Barack Obama for commuting the sentences of eight crack cocaine offenders Thursday, and said he should begin using the process more.

Obama has not used his commutation and pardon power much during his presidency, and chose to do so in these cases because of the disparity of sentences between crack and powder cocaine. Most convicted of using crack cocaine are black, while most convicted of using powder cocaine are white.

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 cut those disparities, but the people whose sentences where commuted on Thursday were convicted prior to the law's enactment. They likely would have gotten shorter sentences if convicted under the current law.

Thirteen others received pardons from Obama.

Most had served 15-plus years, and their sentences would already have ended under current law.

"Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness," Obama said in a written statement.

The Senate Judiciary Committee next month will take up wider reform for drug sentences, so Obama is likely trying to elevate the issue, CNN reported.

Dershowitz told CNN the action was a good start, but it's "just the tip of a very, very disturbing iceberg" toward fairer sentencing.

"So many lives have been ruined by these draconian drug sentences, particularly people who haven't been involved in any kind of violence," Dershowitz said. "We're five percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's inmates."

Sentences for crack cocaine are sometimes 10 times higher than those of the powder form, Dershowitz said.

He also noted that his home state of Massachusetts has legalized marijuana and "no one noticed the difference" as far as quality of life is concerned. There are just fewer people are in prison, he said.

Crime is going down in the United States and in the world, but the prison population is not going down proportionally, he told CNN

"Crime is costing us a fortune in terms of imprisonment. We're not getting bang for our buck. We're not getting justice," he said.

The commuting and pardoning powers are one of the most important granted to him by the Constitution, Dershowitz said, and Obama should be using them more often.

"It was intended to be used broadly to bring about justice and equal treatment," he said, but has been less used since President Bill Clinton sparked outrage by pardoning tax evader Marc Rich, his half-brother Roger Clinton and others on his last day in office.

Dershowitz said he'd like to see Jonathan Pollard's sentence commuted. Pollard, convicted of passing U.S. secrets to Israel, has already served 28 years of his life sentence.

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