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With Her Eye On Nov. '08, Polls Dictate Clinton Crime Policy

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The following piece was produced by HuffPost's OffTheBus, and also appears on the author's blog,Witness L.A..

Why are so many progressives unhappy with the thought of Hillary Clinton becoming the Democratic nominee? Here's a perfect case in point:

This past weekend all the Democratic presidential wannabes spoke at what is known as the Iowa Brown & Black Forum. (The Republican wannabes were also invited but they declined.)

The candidates were asked all the usual questions and, for the most part, gave all the expected answers. But on one issue in particular Hillary differed markedly from her colleagues--and that had to do with the recent recommendation by the federal sentencing commission that people caught with crack cocaine should have sentences more in line with those for powder cocaine. This was an issue of interest to the forum because powder tends to be a drug favored by those whiter and wealthier than those who favor crack.

When asked about her own policy, Clinton said she agreed with the feds' recommendation for equalizing the sentences, but she opposed making the sentencing changes retroactive.

"I have problems with retroactivity," she said. "It's something a lot of communities will be concerned about as well." Obama, Edwards, Richarson, Dodd, Kucinich said they were in favor of the sentencing change being applied to those already serving time.

Now before we get to the reality of how such a sentencing change would play out, let's parse what Clinton said: Although she agrees that disproportionate punishments for crack versus cocaine are wrong for the future, she doesn't feel that past disproportionate punishments are wrong.

To show this POV for the whacked logic that it is, let's use an absurd example. Imagine that, as a country, we used to lock people up for twenty years for jaywalking. But then we finally came to our senses and realized that a 20-year jolt for crossing the street against the light was awfully harsh. So, we changed the sentencing structure, and dropped jaywalking back to a traffic citation, where it belongs. But using Clinton's present logic, all those poor jaywalkers who are, say, only eighteen months into a 20-year sentence are just going to have hang in with whole two decades of hard time.

Why is Clinton taking a stand that goes against basic fairness and logic?

Because evidently her pollsters and handlers have told her that Rudy Giuliani will attack her if she goes for retroactivity. "It will release 20,000 felons on the street!" (Actually, it won't. But we'll get to all that in a minute.)

Here's what Politco reported on the subject:

"Clinton's pollster, Mark Penn, pointed out that the Republican front-runner has already signaled that he will attack Democrats on releasing people convicted of drug crimes....."

"'Rudy Giuliani is already going after the issue," Penn said. "He's already starting to attack Democrats, claiming it will release 20,000 convicted drug dealers.'"

Now about those 20,000 felons about to flood our neighborhoods, here's the deal: People would NOT be automatically be released. They'd have to go before a court and argue that they were fit to be freed, and a judge would decide whether or not a release was warranted.

In an attempt to clear up the misconception advanced by Clinton and Giuliani (and perpetuated by the media) the ACLU sent out a press release on Monday. It's worth reading in its entirety, but ACLU Legislative Counsel Jesselyn McCurdy gets to the bottom line:

"The [Sentencing Commission] changed the crack cocaine sentencing guidelines last month because the commission realized they were unfair. It makes no sense to call a law unjust and in the same breath say it should still apply. Retroactivity doesn't mean prisoners will be released en masse; it means the mistakes in sentencing that have gone unchecked for decades will be corrected."

Right. As an attorney and as a senator, Hilary Clinton should know that. If she doesn't, shame on her. If she knows and is making her choice simply based on craven political motives, she doesn't deserve to be president.