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“Shaping The National Conversation”: President Obama Sends A Signal To Governors On Commutations

Last Friday I noted that President Obama had commuted the sentences of 95 federal prisoners – mostly non-violent drug offenders. It turns out that “mostly” was accurate because two of them didn’t fit that description.

Carolyn Yvonne Butler of Texas, convicted of three counts of armed bank robbery and using a firearm during a violent crime, and George Andre Axam of Georgia, convicted of possessing a firearm as a felon.

Activists within the criminal justice reform movement noticed and weighed in.

“It’s a good message to send to governors across the country, given that they have similar commutation and pardon powers that could be exercised this way,” Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, told TakePart.

The reason Mauer says that is because at some point, in order to effectively deal with mass incarceration, we’re going to have to deal with “violent offenders.” And that is primarily an issue for the states, where their prison population is broken down like this:

Consider the nation’s largest incarcerated population, the 1,315,000 held in state prisons. Only 4 percent are there for drug possession. An additional 12 percent are incarcerated for drug sales, manufacturing, or trafficking. Eleven percent are there for public order offenses such as prostitution or drunk driving, and 19 percent for property crimes such as fraud and car theft, including some property crimes that many consider serious or violent, such as home invasion. That leaves a full 54 percent of state prisoners who are incarcerated for violent crimes, including murder, kidnapping, manslaughter, rape, sexual assault, and armed robbery.

The federal government (and the President) are somewhat limited in what they can do to address the problem of mass incarceration. That is because only 13% of those incarcerated are in federal prisons – 48% of those are drug offenders. Between the President’s Clemency Initiative and the retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act, that number will be dramatically reduced in the coming year. But as the numbers above demonstrate, non-violent drug offenders are a small part of the enormous state prison population.

John Pfaff, professor of law at Fordham University School of Law, described President Obama’s commutations of the sentences of Butler and Axam this way:

“The most powerful thing Obama can do is shape the national conversation,” he said. “There’s certainly no downside to Obama having done this, but more governors have to have the courage to come out and actually start commuting violent offenders’ sentences.”

In other words, President Obama has opened the door for a conversation about the much tougher issues involved in ending mass incarceration. Time for governors to step up.


By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, December 23, 2015

December 26, 2015 Posted by | Commutations, Criminal Justice System, Governors, Mass Incarceration | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Snowden Conspiracies Are The Left’s Benghazi”: Much Ado About Terrible Crimes That Haven’t Actually Happened

Moscow has always been hard on idealists. So it’s no surprise to find the world-renowned civil libertarian Edward Snowden feeling shaky midway through his first Russian winter. In a televised Christmas message recorded by Britain’s Channel 4, Snowden waxed alternately as grandiose and apocalyptic as a Dostoyevsky character.

On one hand, the former NSA analyst who stole a hoard of classified documents from the spy agency and passed them around to selected journalists sees himself as a world historical figure.

“The mission’s already accomplished,” he told the Washington Post. “I already won. As soon as the journalists were able to work, everything that I had been trying to do was validated … I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.”

On the other hand, we’re all doomed. Even George Orwell had no clue. Snowden insists that government surveillance has far outstripped anything dreamed of in the dystopian novel 1984.

“The types of collection in the book — microphones and video cameras, TVs that watch us — are nothing compared to what we have available today. We have sensors in our pockets that track us everywhere we go,” Snowden said. “Think about what this means for the privacy of the average person.”

“A child born today,” he lamented, “will … never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves (or) an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought.”

Probably not, because they’ll post it on Facebook, along with kitten videos and photos of their lunch.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Frankly, I wonder if Snowden actually read 1984, which is less about surveillance techniques than the police state mentality: Big Brother, “War is Peace,” the Two Minutes Hate, children informing on their parents, etc.

Indeed, Snowden himself appears to exhibit a classic case of what Orwell called “doublethink.”

“To know and not to know,” Orwell wrote, “to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic … to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy.”

Or, to put it another way, to flee the totalitarian excesses of the U.S. government while taking refuge in countries where the concept of “privacy” scarcely exists. To condemn NSA snooping while handing its secrets to China, the world’s leading practitioner of computerized military and commercial espionage.

This is “mission accomplished”?

So no, I’m not buying Edward Snowden the savior. Whatever the man’s motives, he’s a traitor. The real scandal is how he got a security clearance to start with.

Anyway, despite the melodrama, it’s not technology that threatens freedom of conscience. Quite the opposite. While in Russia, Snowden should read Vasily Aksyonov’s Generations of Winter to understand the repression Stalin achieved with gadgets even more primitive than Orwell depicted.

Something else that didn’t exist in George Orwell’s day, of course, were jihadist websites exporting criminal conspiracies worldwide. It was also much harder to transfer money and to communicate from halfway around the world, and in nothing like real time.

Bomb-making instructions weren’t easily available on the Internet, making mass murder harder to bring off from remote locations. International terrorism existed, but on a far less dangerous scale.

Certainly the terrorist threat can be exaggerated. However, unless you really don’t want your government doing all it can to prevent mass casualty strikes, most of what the NSA does appears both necessary and inevitable.

Here’s something else the melodramatic Mr. Snowden said: “Recently we learned that our governments, working in concert, have created a system of worldwide mass surveillance watching everything we do.”

This is such sheer, self-dramatizing humbug I can’t think why anybody pretends to believe it. At worst, your telephone “metadata” and mine are stored in a huge NSA database, where it will be purged after five years unless you start dialing 1-900-HotVirgins in Yemen — at which point the FBI might seek a search warrant to check you out.

That sensor in your pocket tracking your whereabouts 24/7? It’s the GPS function in your cellphone. You want to hide from the government (or your wife)? Shut it off or hang it from the dog’s collar.

“I don’t know what he’s up to, Sergeant, but he’s still under the front porch.”

For that matter Amazon and Citicard know a lot more about me personally than the NSA, using information I’ve willingly given them. So do Verizon, Facebook and my bank. But nobody makes me read on a Kindle or pay for things with a credit card. As long as the data exists, it can theoretically be abused.

NSA would be a rare bureaucracy if it didn’t overstep its bounds. However, until I see genuine victims of government abuse, I’ll keep thinking the Snowden affair has become the left’s equivalent of the Benghazi delusion: much ado about terrible crimes that haven’t actually happened.


By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, January 5, 2014

January 7, 2014 Posted by | Benghazi, Edward Snowden, National Security | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“They Elected Me, The Overseers”: No Clemency From Snowden’s Self-Importance

Eh, I suppose I could find myself coming around to what the New York Times editorial suggests the United States should do to Edward Snowden. That is, offer the Russia-residing national security leaker, “a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home, face at least substantially reduced punishment in light of his role as a whistle-blower, and have the hope of a life advocating for greater privacy and far stronger oversight of the runaway intelligence community.” Snowden should be held accountable in some way for stealing government secrets. What I don’t think I could stand is a public life of advocacy.

My views on Snowden are pretty clear. They were mostly negative views that were reinforced when I read his interview with The Post’s Barton Gellman published just before Christmas. No need for me to go into detail about what I thought because my colleague Ruth Marcus did it masterfully in the opening paragraphs of her Tuesday column.

Time has not deflated Edward Snowden’s messianic sense of self-importance. Nor has living in an actual police state given the National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower any greater appreciation of the actual freedoms that Americans enjoy.

Insufferable is the first adjective evoked by Snowden’s recent interview with Barton Gellman in The Post, but it has numerous cousins: smug, self-righteous, egotistical, disingenuous, megalomaniacal, overwrought.

“Let them say what they want,” Snowden said of his critics during the Moscow interview with Gellman. “It’s not about me.” A side-eye-worthy statement as it came near the end of a story that was one long aria of Snowden self-importance.

It’s not about him, but “I am not trying to bring down the NSA, I am working to improve the NSA,” he said.

It’s not about him, but “That whole question — who elected you? — inverts the model,” he said. “They elected me. The overseers.”

And it’s not about him, but he said, “somebody has to be the first” since no one else felt as compelled as he to steal government secrets and violate an oath of secrecy to shed light on the activities of the National Security Agency.

With all the political enemies arrayed on Capitol Hill against President Obama, why didn’t Snowden take his ample concerns to Republican lawmakers? Lord knows, they are always casting about (unsuccessfully) for the latest “-gate” they believe will bring down the Obama administration.

Despite my dim view of the man and his actions, there is no denying that what Snowden revealed demands attention. That’s why one thing he told Gellman had me nodding my head.

“I don’t care whether you’re the pope or Osama bin Laden,” he said. “As long as there’s an individualized, articulable, probable cause for targeting these people as legitimate foreign intelligence, that’s fine. I don’t think it’s imposing a ridiculous burden by asking for probable cause. Because, you have to understand, when you have access to the tools the NSA does, probable cause falls out of trees.”

On Dec. 18, the president’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies issued its report on the government’s surveillance activities and offered recommendations on how to limit its vast scope and capabilities. At his year-end press conference two days later, Obama said,  he would make a “pretty definitive statement” on it all upon his return from vacation this month.

No doubt, there is nothing the president could propose that would go far enough for most folks in curbing the excesses of the NSA. But, to borrow a phrase from Snowden, “somebody has to be the first” to try.


By: Jonathan Capehart, PostPartisan, The Washington Post, January 2, 2013

January 5, 2014 Posted by | Edward Snowden, National Security | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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