Obama’s New Criteria for Releasing People From Prison—Smoke and Mirrors Aimed at Covering Over the Horrors of Mass Incarceration

by Carl Dix | May 5, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


On April 20, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it was broadening its criteria for evaluating petitions for clemency from federal prisoners. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the new criteria “are aimed at inmates serving time for nonviolent drug offenses, are intended to lead to a reduction in the nation's federal prison population and also to ensure that those who have paid their debts have a chance to become productive citizens."

Some people say this shows that Obama is trying to do good but has been held back by right-wingers in Congress. They say people should get behind Obama on this and work with his administration to make this change happen and encourage him to keep doing things like this.

In reality, this is a case of a world-class criminal, Obama, who presides over targeted assassinations, hundreds of drone strikes that kill innocent people, immigration raids that tear families apart and disappear people, mass incarceration that has tens of millions of people’s lives enmeshed in the criminal “injustice” system, and more. This criminal sees that his system’s ass is hanging out—that people are opening their eyes to the 2.2 million people in prison, more than 60 percent of them Black or Latino; the torture of solitary confinement enforced on 80,000 people in prison; women subjected to rape; and more. Obama sees that there is growing anger at the horrors of mass incarceration and there’s potential for this to lead to people broadly questioning the legitimacy of a system that does all this shit to people.

So he has begun to talk about mass incarceration being a problem and to make some moves to try to cover over its ugly reality. But when you sort thru the smoke and mirrors of the DOJ announcement of new criteria for evaluating clemency petitions, you find changes that will only apply to a small percentage of the people in prison. We won’t know for months how many people end up getting released under these criteria, or even if any people end up getting released under them. But we do know that less than 5 percent of those in prison in the U.S. right now can meet the first of the criteria—being a federal prisoner serving time for a nonviolent drug offense—because the vast majority of inmates are incarcerated in state or local, not federal, prisons, and so are completely ineligible for this program. When you add in other aspects of Holder’s new criteria—that people be able to make a case that they would be sentenced to a shorter sentence today and that they have no disciplinary infractions on their records in prison—we find that this could come down to a lot of fanfare over the release of a few thousand or even only a few hundred people from prison.

Look, people sentenced to decades behind bars for possessing a banned substance should get out of jail, but should we get behind and work with Obama because he’s talking about letting a few people out of jail? I say HELL NO! Even if they let all the people who met the nonviolent drug offense criteria out of federal prison, the structure of mass incarceration in the U.S. as a whole would remain intact; to say nothing of all the other crimes against the people Obama presides over.

Let’s look at this. If in 1860, the slave masters said they were going to free 20,000 Black people from slavery, should those opposed to the slave system have decided to work with the slave masters? If Hitler had said he was going to free 30,000 Jews held in the death camps during World War 2, should people have decided to work with the Nazis? If apartheid South Africa had said it was going to lift the restrictions on one million Africans, should the anti-apartheid movement have decided to work with that apartheid regime? It’s no different with Obama and the U.S. imperialist rulers.

This is not a time to step back from fighting against the horror of mass incarceration which has tens of millions of mostly Black and Latino people living their lives enmeshed in the web of the criminal “injustice” system. It’s a time to step up the struggle to wipe off the face of the earth the system responsible for this horror, and all the other horrors the imperialist system enforces on humanity—women forced into sexual slavery, the devastation of the environment, the wars for empire, and more. It’ll take communist revolution, and nothing less, to do this.

And all those who see the horrors of the racially disparate mass incarceration and want to see it ended need to throw in to take the movement of resistance to a whole other level. The way to do this is to join in the October Month of Resistance to Mass Incarceration, Police Terror, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation.

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