MSNBC Panel Members Pine for Release of More Felons from Prison

April 27th, 2014 11:18 PM

On the Saturday, April 26, Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC, Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post substitute hosted a segment celebrating efforts by the Obama administration to reduce the number of convicted felons in prison in aftermath of signing a law in 2010 reducing mandatory sentences.

Panel member Martin Glenn of Just Leadership USA -- who was introduced by Capehart as having a goal to "cut the U.S. prison population in half by 2030" -- joined USA Today columnist Raul Reyes in complaining about the requirement that prisoners serve 10 years with good behavior to be eligible for early release as the two suggested it was nearly impossible to do so.

Below is a transcript of the relevant portion of the Saturday, April 26, Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC:

JONATHAN CAPEHART, DESCRIBING A LAW SIGNED IN 1986: But the law's most lasting legacy was the creation of a 100-1 sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine. It meant despite the fact that cocaine and crack are pharmalogically identical, it took 100 times more cocaine than crack to trigger the same mandatory prison sentence. The law also imposed mandatory minimum sentences that took sentencing decisions out of the hands of judges and forced them to put low-level drug offenders behind bars for years.

And today, 27 years later, we are still living with the consequences of what that drug war has wrought, an explosion in the federal prison population from about 24,000 in 1980 to more than 200,000 by 2009 -- an increase of more than 700 percent. By 2009, drug offenders comprised more than half of the total population of federal inmates, many of whom were subject to mandatory minimum sentences.

The new tough on crime policy shift was also accompanied by profound racial inequities in incarceration rates for drug crimes. Despite comparable rates of drug possession and sales, African-Americans and Latinos are far more likely than white Americans to become criminalized and to serve longer sentences for drug offenses.

In 2010, President Obama began taking the first major deviation away from the policies that created those disparities when he signed the Fair Sentencing Act. That law reduced the disparity in the amount of cocaine versus crack required to trigger the mandatory minimum from 100-1 to 18-1. And it eliminated the mandatory minimum for simple crack possession which brings me back to Wednesday's announcement and the Obama administraiton's sharp turn to bring justice to the casualties of the War on Drugs.


Joining me now is Glenn Martin, president and founder of Just Leadership USA, which aims to cut U.S. prison population in half by 2030.


GLENN MARTIN, JUST LEADERSHIP USA: The fact that you have to serve 10 years, and 10 years with a good disciplinary record, I mean, this is a system that inherently is about punishment. Mother Teresa would do 10 years and probably not come out without a disciplinary record.

CAPEHART: So that's an incredible perspective, left me speechless.

RAUL REYES, ATTORNEY AND USA TODAY COLUMNIST: That's so true because, just think about it, if you're someone put in prison for this type of crime with this disproportionate sentence, you are utterly hopeless. You have truly nothing to lose.  So it's, like you said, it's almost a human condition that maybe you get involved in violence or that it drives you to it.

And also, when we speak about the war on drugs, it's important, you touched on it with the racial disparities. It's a war on drugs with an asterisk because it's a war on drugs for poor communities, it's a war on drugs in communities of color, it's not a war on drugs, and it was not a war on drugs for the whole country.