Clergy asks Clinton for a final act

Religious leaders call for clemency for thousands of imprisoned nonviolent drug offenders.

By Anthony York
December 23, 2000 12:13AM (UTC)
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With time running out on the Clinton presidency, a group of religious leaders has come together to plead for the freedom of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders. The group, which calls itself the Coalition for Jubilee Clemency, has sent a letter to President Clinton, signed by more than 600 religious leaders, asking him to consider commuting what they view as unfair sentences.

"Before William Jefferson Clinton leaves office on January 20, 2001 he should establish, as part of his legacy, demonstrable acts that show he stood for justice by freeing thousands of federal prisoners sentenced unjustly," the letter says.


The call for clemency comes amid signs that the drug war zeitgeist is in flux. Steven Soderbergh's new movie "Traffic," starring Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, hits theaters over the holidays, just in time for Oscar consideration. It's one of the few Hollywood films to preach that the war on drugs is unwinnable.

Last week, Debra Saunders, a conservative columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, penned a column endorsing the coalition's move, writing that "this should be the perfect time for President Clinton to commute the sentences of low-level nonviolent drug offenders in federal prison."

During the recent congressional elections, Republican Senate candidate Tom Campbell's criticism of the war on drugs was a centerpiece of his campaign. "Recovering Republican" columnist Arianna Huffington has made reforming America's drug-sentencing laws her new crusade. And New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a Republican, has called for the complete decriminalization of drugs.


Though Campbell was shellacked in his race against incumbent Democrat Dianne Feinstein, California voters overwhelmingly approved Prop. 36, which would require people arrested for nonviolent drug offenses to be sent to drug treatment centers instead of jail or prison. The measure was opposed by nearly every law enforcement group in the state but passed with 61 percent of the vote.

But Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation remains pessimistic that the battle against the war on drugs will be won on moral grounds. Though he acknowledges that the backlash against the drug war is growing, he says he doesn't think "it's reached a tipping point yet. I could be mistaken. If our economy were to go into a serious recession and the talk of our great surplus ceased, people might look more profoundly at the economics here. People are aware that the war of drugs has been a colossal waste of money."

Sterling says the coalition is focusing its efforts on getting Clinton to act before he leaves office: On "Jan. 20, the political reality is transfigured, so to speak," he says. "Mr. Clinton has the constitutional authority to act without the support of Congress. We believe his historical legacy regarding incarceration can be ameliorated here."


During Clinton's presidency, the federal prison population has swelled from 73,000 to more than 146,000. Sterling estimates that roughly 24,000 of these prisoners are nonviolent drug offenders. He bases his estimates on an extrapolation of statistics provided in a 1994 analysis of the federal prison population by the Department of Justice.

"It could be a little more, could be less," Sterling says. "Even if we're off by a few thousand, it's still more than at any time in history."


Yet the political obstacles to reforming the criminal justice system and drug sentencing laws remain formidable. For example, an enormous battle has erupted in California over the implementation of Prop. 36. "There are already some efforts to divert money away from treatment and into the courts," says Scott Ehlers, spokesman for Americans for Medical Rights, which sponsored the California initiative. "We're trying to make sure that drug treatment is the first priority."

The initiative had a powerful, bipartisan group of opponents, including law enforcement groups, Gov. Gray Davis, the powerful prison guards union and White House drug czar Barry McCaffery. "It's never hurt us to have McCaffery come out against one of our initiatives," Ehlers says. "He represents the status quo on American drug policy. Obviously, the American public does not agree with how the drug war is being run."

But while McCaffery and others, like California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, opposed Prop. 36, they have been supportive of its philosophical thrust.


"He has had some good things to say -- that we can't arrest our way out of the drug problem, that we need to provide some more drug treatment," Ehlers says of McCaffery. "The problem is, his actions don't follow his words. We've seen more arrests for drug offenses by the Clinton administration than by any other. They continue to try to incarcerate our way out of our drug problem."

McCaffery's office did not return calls seeking comment.

While Lockyer has voiced support in the past for drug treatment as an alternative to prison, he was unequivocal in his opposition to the ballot measure. "Prop. 36 will destroy California's highly effective drug court system and effectively decriminalize hardcore drugs in California," Lockyer said before the vote on the initiative.


The clergy's movement may run into similar problems. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Clinton said that sentences "in many [drug] cases are too long for nonviolent offenders," but indicated it was too late for him to act.

Clinton spokesman Mark Kitchens said the White House had received the group's letter, but "at this time we don't have anything to say or comment on it."

Ehlers holds out hope that the drug laws might be changed during George W. Bush's presidency, even though Texas had the fastest-growing prison population in America on Bush's watch. "It's long been my contention that for the drug war to end, it's going to have to be ended by Republicans and not Democrats," he said. "It took Richard Nixon to go to China and it'll take a Republican to end the drug war."

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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