October 23rd, 2008
12:30 PM ET
10 years ago

Fact Check: Does Obama oppose mandatory prison sentences for violent criminals and drug dealers?

The Statement
In a new automated telephone call being sent out by the Republican National Committee in battleground states, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican and former presidential candidate, says, "I'm calling for John McCain and the Republican National Committee, because you need to know that Barack Obama opposes mandatory prison sentences for sex offenders, drug dealers, and murderers. It's true, I read Obama's words myself."

Get the facts!

The Facts
During a debate as a senatorial candidate in October 2003, Obama was asked whether he'd vote to abolish mandatory-minimum sentences. "I would vote to abolish mandatory minimum sentences," he said. "One of the things that I've done in the state Senate has been to try to reform the capital justice system ..., trying to make sure that our criminal justice system is in fact just. ... (W)e need to do the same thing at the federal level; the mandatory minimums take too much discretion away from judges." Obama did not specifically mention sex offenders, drug dealers and murderers.

Speaking at Howard University in Washington, D.C., almost four years later, on September 28, 2007, Obama gave a more detailed answer to a similar question. "I think it's time we also took a hard look at the wisdom of locking up some first-time, non-violent drug users for decades. Someone once said that '...long minimum sentences for first-time users may not be the best way to occupy jail space and-or heal people from their disease.' That someone was George W. Bush - six years ago. I don't say this very often, but I agree with the president. The difference is, he hasn't done anything about it." Obama said that, as president, he'd work to "reduce the blind and counterproductive warehousing of
nonviolent offenders."

A page on Obama's campaign Web site says he "will immediately review these sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the ineffective warehousing of nonviolent offenders." According to a CNN review, no direct votes on mandatory minimums have come before the Senate since Obama has been a member.

Many judges and judges' organizations are against mandatory-minimum sentences - saying they take away a judge's ability to deal with cases that may have special circumstances. "This would require one-size-fits-all justice," said U.S. District Judge Paul G. Cassell, chairman of the Criminal Law Committee of the Judicial Conference, the judicial branch's policy-making body. He was speaking in June 2007, when the Bush administration was pushing to reinstate mandatory minimums after they'd been thrown out by the Supreme Court. "Judges are the ones who look the defendants in the eyes. They hear from the victims. They hear from the prosecutors," Cassell said.

The Verdict: Misleading. Obama made a general comment about voting to eliminate mandatory-minimum sentences four years ago. But more detailed comments and his campaign Web site specify that he'd focus on nonviolent drug offenses, not violent crimes.

Filed under: Candidate Barack Obama • Fact Check
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