Saturday, January 21, 2017

Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter and Presidential Mercy

Barack Obama spent the last days of his churning out sentence commutations.  Hundreds were given to non-violent drug offenders facing draconian sentences under the exceptionally harsh Federal Sentence Standards, the most vindictive in the world.  But there are so many of those victims of the failed war on drugs that the commutations hardly made a dent in the American gulag.  Also given leniency were some white collar criminals, the kind of offenders that drew the more stingy grace of Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush.  Even a beloved baseball icon, Willie McCovey of the San Francisco Giants who was convicted on Income Tax evasion was one of 64 that drew and outright pardon from the President. 
Most controversially Obama commuted the sentences of whistleblower Chelsea Manning, the former Army Private Bradley Manning, and Puerto Rican nationalist leader Oscar Lopez.  Inexplicably he did not commute the sentence of ailing American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier who has been behind bars for 40 years and will now surely die in prison.

Barack Obama was unusually active with clemency orders and pardons in his last days in office.

However disappointing and mystifying that travesty of justice was, Obama gets credit for at least wrestling with the catastrophic effects of the lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mania Americans.
No one, except possibly sex offenders, gun nuts, and White nationalist terrorists should expect any such displays of mercy from the incoming occupant of the Oval Office.  On the contrary.  Look for him and his administration to swell the prison population with those who resist his autocratic rule, immigrants, and minorities of every sort.
Forty years ago today another incoming president on his first day in office, January 21, 1977 issued a blanket amnesty of most draft evaders, including those who went to Canada or assumed new identities and went underground in the states.
On his first day in office President Jimmy Carter ordered a sweeping amnesty for Vietnam era draft resisters including those who had fled the country or gone underground.
President Jimmy Carter’s controversial act, which brought harsh criticism from veterans’ organizations and near mutinous grumbling from some high level officers in the military, was not unexpected.  It fulfilled a campaign promise.  The idea was to put the bitter national divisions over the Vietnam War and Nixon years behind us, or in Carter’s own words, “to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
The accidental President, Gerald Ford, had issued a conditional pardon for draft offenders, including those who were abroad, in September of 1974.  That was mainly to provide cover on the left for his pre-emptive pardon of his predecessor, Richard Nixon for any offenses that he may have committed.”  The Ford conditional pardon is generally better remembered than Carter’s much more substantial action because of that linkage despite requiring those who accepted the pardon to work in alternative service occupations similar to those of conscientious objectors for six to 24 months.  Far fewer men than expected took Ford up on his offer.
Carter’s action was much more sweeping, but a little noticed provision said that amnesty would be given to all offenders who requested one.  Some resistors refused to make a request because to do so was an admission that they had committed a crime in the first place.  Many, many more were unaware, because of hazy press coverage, that they had to make a request.  The Justice Department did not even make a cursory effort to inform the eligible by a letter to a “last known address.” 
The wording also was unclear on an important point for men like me—did the amnesty cover those who were already convicted and had served sentences for draft offenses?  I don’t think that last point has yet been fully answered.
None the less tens of thousands of draft refusers, evaders, and military deserters acted on the assumption that they were covered and the Justice Department de facto ceased actions against anyone who could have been covered by amnesty.  

More than half a million young men were either charged with draft evasion and resistance, or avoided or refused to serve in the Armed Forces but were never charged during the Vietnam War.
During the war, and continuing after it ended until Draft call-ups stopped in 1973, 209,517 men were accused of violating draft laws, and another 360,000 were never formally charged.  Around 100,000 went abroad, 90% of them to Canada.  The exact number who went “underground” has never been established, but is thought to be in the tens of thousands.
Upwards of 50,000 of those in Canada chose to stay there rather than return home.  Most were granted Landed Immigrant status and eventually Canadian citizenship.  A highly educated group with significant resources, these people had an impact on Canada.  Many became leading figures in academia, the arts, and in politics.  They are widely credited with/accused of moving Canadian politics generally to the left.
Likewise a good, but unknown, number of those who went underground chose to continue to live their lives under the identities that they assumed.  In the 1960’s and early 70’s it was absurdly easy to establish a new identity.  It is thought that as this cohort becomes eligible for Social Security or die many of these assumed identities will unravel.
As for an old Draft con like me, I never got any amnesty papers.  But I have lived my life quite openly, and even drawn some modest attention to myself.  So far so good.

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