President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 214 federal prisoners yesterday, part of his ongoing crusade against a criminal-justice system he regularly declares racist and draconian. The White House trumpeted the fact that this was the largest one-day grant of clemency since 1900. Some of the prisoners will be released now; others will have to stay in prison a while longer for more drug rehabilitation.
The vast majority of prisoners exemplify the so-called nonviolent-drug-offender category, a primary focus of “criminal-justice reform” advocates. But a search of the commutation database comes up with 156 hits for “firearms” (some of those hits are multiple counts for the same offender). Wilson Henderson, of Hollywood, Fla., for example, was convicted of “use of a firearm during a drug trafficking crime,” according to the Justice Department press release. Kenneth Evans, of Fort Worth, Texas, was convicted of “use and carry firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime and aiding and abetting.” Mark Anthony Clark, of Rockford, Ill., was convicted of “possession of a firearm by a felon/fugitive from justice and aiding and abetting,” as well as of conspiracy to distribute 100 grams of meth.
Nor does the Justice Department’s press release disclose the actual incidence of firearm possession by these federal convicts. Gun possession can be used to increase a federal sentence under the federal sentencing guidelines without a prosecutor’s actually bringing a formal charge. A gun charge can also be plea-bargained away.
Many advocates of criminal-justice reform believe in maximum gun control, yet the White House press releases on the president’s commutations have been silent on the widespread incidence of illegal gun possession. It would seem that once someone becomes a member of the oppressed prisoner class, the gun issue becomes irrelevant.
Now let’s say that you are an elderly widow in Harlem and you want to go out to buy some tea. There is a drug dealer on the corner trafficking cocaine. He has a pistol in his waistband. Do you feel safe? Does it reassure you that the dealer is not actually shooting people at the moment? Or is his very presence there part of an implicit reign of violence that the drug trade exerts over your life, eroding your sense of security?
The latter is the case, to judge from the routine pleas to the police from law-abiding inner-city residents. These good people beg their local commanders to get the dealers off the corner once and for all; they would scoff at the distinction between violent and nonviolent drug traffickers. They understand that the drug trade is underwritten by the implicit threat of violence.We have been told endlessly by President Obama and the rest of the justice-reform movement that prisons are chock-full of harmless sad sacks whose only offense is getting caught with a little weed. It should have been easy, therefore, to come up with thousands of pacific targets for commutation or pardon. That so many of recipients of Obama’s clemency were armed and dangerous shows how distorted the dominant narrative about “mass incarceration” is.
(Similarly, race activists endlessly charged the New York Police Department with stopping and questioning hundreds of thousands of innocent black males. It should have equally been easy, therefore, to line up hundreds of such innocent victims for the trilogy of class-action lawsuits against the NYPD’s stop-question-and-frisk practices. But the civil-rights attorneys in the suits could rustle up only a handful of named plaintiffs, most of whom had lengthy and serious criminal histories. One of the nine named plaintiffs in Ligon v. New York, one of the three class actions, was federally indicted last December for stomping a 16-year-old gang rival to death in the Bronx.)
— Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of The War on Cops, released in June.