A “Nation of Second Chances”: Obama Cuts Prison Sentences

President Obama has made history again! On August 3, he reduced the sentences of 214 federal inmates, including 67 life sentences. This marked the largest single-day grant of commutations since at least 1900. It also raised Obama’s total commutations to 562 – more than the past 9 presidents combined.

The commuted inmates included Ronald Evans, who was sentenced to life in prison as a teen for his role in a small drug distribution ring. They included Ramona Brant, who was given a life sentence for failing to report her drug dealing boyfriend. And they included Norman Brown, who was sentenced to life in prison at 22 for conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

Identifying candidates for clemency was a “laborious process”. In 2014, the Obama administration developed expanded eligibility criteria, prioritizing non-violent offenders who: served over 10 years, behaved well in prison, lack close ties to gangs or drug cartels, and “would have received shorter sentences if…convicted a few years later”. At least three levels of lawyers at the Justice Department and White House then reviewed each applicant against these criteria. Successful applicants were sent to the President for approval, while unsuccessful applicants were often given additional drug treatment, educational programming, or counseling.

So what is the motivation behind Obama’s mercy? It is partly philosophical. The president believes that inmates’ sentences should accurately reflect their crimes. Additionally, he feels that inmates who have “demonstrated the potential to turn [their] lives around” and the “capacity to make good choices” deserve a second chance.

But there are also practical considerations. Overly onerous sentencing requirements “have put tens of thousands behind bars for far too long”, resulting in “incarceration rates unseen in other developed countries”.  The cost to the justice and penal systems is immense. Hence, commutations can reduce prison overcrowding and “save taxpayers like you money”. They also reunite families, helping to break the cycle of incarceration.

Still, criticism abounds. Some have accused Obama of being “soft on crime”. They fear recidivism (although most commuted inmates will remain supervised following release). Others believe Obama has not gone far enough. The Clemency Resource Center at NYU says that more than 11,000 petitions are pending and 1,500 meet the administration’s criteria. Attorney Deborah Leff maintains that some inmates deserve pardons, allowing them vote and “apply for jobs without criminal records”.

Even Obama acknowledges the weaknesses of his clemency initiative. “Despite these important efforts,” he says, “only legislation can bring about lasting change to the federal system”. For this reason, “it is critical that both the House and the Senate continue to cooperate on a bipartisan basis to get a criminal justice reform bill to the President’s desk”.

Want to help incarcerated individuals get a “second chance” and become “valued and contributing members of society”? Please contact the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, or our partner, Rosebud Advocacy.


The Clean Power Plan: Obama’s “Last Sweeping Effort to Remake America”

wind5Earlier this week, President Obama unveiled his latest plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow climate change. Dubbed the “Clean Power Plan”, it calls for the power industry to cut carbon dioxide emissions 30% by 2030 (from 2005 levels).

To achieve this reduction, the plan establishes individual targets for states. The targets reflect each state’s economy, current emission levels, and capacity for cuts. For example, coal-dependent Kentucky has a target of 19%, while hydro-rich Washington has a target of 84%. The plan, like the Affordable Care Act, also gives states great flexibility in meeting their targets. Among other actions, states can shut down coal plants, invest in wind and solar power, install energy efficient technology, join a cap-and-trade program, or enact a state tax on carbon pollution.

From a purely environmental perspective, many are hailing the plan. After all, the United States’ roughly 1000 power plants account for nearly 40% of all US carbon emissions – and currently face no carbon pollution limits. They also emit harmful particle pollution, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide, which are expected to decline by over 25% as a “co-benefit” of the plan.

Some also believe that the Clean Power Plan will shape climate change policy abroad. Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, claims that she “fully expects [the US plan] to spur others in taking concrete action”. (This includes countries like Canada, which have largely tied their emissions targets to the US). Moreover, by sending “a strong signal that the US is serious about reducing carbon pollution”, the plan will “give Washington legitimacy in international talks next year to develop a framework for fighting climate change”.

But despite all the praise for Obama’s “most ambitious plan yet“, not all environmentalists are giving the plan a green thumbs up. First, some feel that the plan does not go far enough. They note that carbon emissions already fell 15% between 2005 and 2013, in part due to the “retirement of coal plants in favor of cleaner-burning natural gas”. This suggests that the 30% target by 2030 is “arguably easier to reach”. In the words of Andrew Revkin of the New York Times, the “Obama plan in effect takes twice as long (16 years) to cut as much carbon pollution as the country just did in 8 years”.

Furthermore, the Obama plan is limited to only one sector of the economy: power generation. According to the Food & Water Watch and the Institute for Policy Studies, this narrow scope will leave the US “far short of the IPCC’s goals for developed countries of economy-wide reductions of 15 to 40% below 1990 emission by 2020”. In fact, with these targets alone, US emissions will still exceed 1990 levels by 2030.

Finally, the Obama plan aims to phase fossil fuels (particularly coal) out of the US energy mix.  However, until economically competitive substitutes hit the market on a large scale, this may be a “waste of effort”. As highlighted by Steve Cohen, Executive Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, “The vast increases in fossil fuel based energy use in China and India alone virtually guarantee continued global warming. Only a lower-priced, reliable, and convenient replacement for fossil fuels will make a difference”.

So what can we make of this debate? Will the Clean Power Plan turn the “red, white, and blue” green? Certainly, by targeting the single largest source of carbon dioxide in the United States, the plan is a “creditable” start. And, without question, it is better than the status quo (no carbon regulations for power plants). However, the plan alone is not the panacea for global climate change. To make real headway, it must be complemented by investment in research, development, and dissemination of renewal substitutes.

To learn more about the Clean Power Plan, please contact the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, the US Climate Action Network, or our partners: Clean Air Cool Planet and the American Lung Association in California.

Flickr photo credit: Thunderbolt_TW


Early Childhood Education: Small Students, Big Returns

edLast week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio released his much-anticipated preliminary budget.  As promised, he earmarked $530 million for universal pre-kindergarten (classroom programs for children under six). The commitment is expected to make pre-kindergarten the “centerpiece” of de Blasio’s first term.

But de Blasio is not alone in his support of early childhood education. Shortly after his inauguration, President Obama invested $10 billion in the cause via the 2009 stimulus package. He also expressed a desire to expand pre-kindergarten (with or without congress) in last month’s State of the Union address.

Indeed, early childhood education is “having a moment” in the United States. But is it warranted? Does formal education for young children actually produce significant beneficial effects?

A vast – and growing – body of research suggests “yes”. Early education promotes the formation of neural pathways in young minds, when they are most receptive to learning. Such pathways allow children to develop key academic, social, and cognitive skills. In this way, early childhood education increases student confidence and school readiness.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children
The benefits of early childhood education also persist over time. According to longitudinal studies, children who participate in early education programs demonstrate higher academic achievement, reduced grade repetition and drop-outs, and higher social and emotional functioning as teenagers. They also enjoy higher productivity, increased earning potential, and thus, greater self-sufficiency as adults. For these reasons, the estimated return on investment of early childhood education is $3 to $16 for every $1 spent.

But there is a key caveat. For early childhood education to have maximal impact, the programs must be high-quality. In other words, they must be well-designed and taught by top-rate teachers. Unfortunately, only 20 US states require all pre-kindergarten teachers to hold bachelor degrees. Furthermore, teachers with degrees are less inclined to work in early childhood education, as the pay is often lower. As a result, experts maintain that many pre-kindergarten teachers are poorly trained, particularly in age-appropriate strategies for teaching math and literacy.

Thus, funding for early childhood education should aim to do more than broaden access. It should also strive to produce better teachers, curricula, and teaching approaches. With a few tweaks, de Blasio and Obama’s proposed initiatives could produce such outcomes (as in New Jersey). However, private actors—such as non-profits and foundations—could also play an instrumental role.

To learn more about early childhood education, please click here. To support the cause, please donate to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the Children’s Defense Fund, or our partners, Junior Achievement and the Newmarket Community Education Partnership.

Flickr Photo Credit: Eric Costello