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Another lesson: Life's unfair

Posted: Friday, March 16, 2001

President Bush's proposal to reduce taxes has been criticized as unfair by liberal Democrats who think the bulk of the tax breaks will go to the rich. Those same Democrats have not raised the fairness issue in the same way when it comes to the last minute pardons and commutations by former President Clinton.

How do people in prison feel about the fairness issue? Should we care?

Dale Hill writes from the federal prison facility in Goldsboro, N.C. Hill says, and his attorney confirms, that he is serving a 14-year sentence for a "low-level, non-violent drug offense." It was his first offense, but in a tough-on-crime environment, he is paying a big price. Unlike many inmates, Hill admits his guilt.

Last year, Hill applied for a presidential commutation. He didn't get it. Hill claims to be rehabilitated and a danger to no one. He says family, clergy, high school teachers and friends endorsed his commutation request. His attorney tells me Hill exhibits one of the most remarkable turnarounds of any inmate he's seen.

In his letter to me, Hill raises some good points about those who received pardons and commutations from Bill Clinton: "Patty Hearst? I don't think her past was a burden. Mr. Deutch? The ex-CIA director wasn't even indicted yet. Marc Rich? Do you think the fact that Mr. Clinton's campaign fund was an issue had any effect on his decision? How about (Clinton's) brother, Roger? I can't see that he would have any trouble getting a job."

If at least part of the prison experience is supposed to change people's lives for the better, what kind of message do the Clinton pardons send to inmates who are serious about changing theirs?

The message Hill received is this: "You would think that out of 175 pardons and commutations more than 36 (his count) would have been people who have used the system to turn their lives around. ...What are the men and women who worked so very hard to change their lives supposed to tell our children when they ask why Mr. Clinton's brother and the wealthy benefited from his power but their Dad or Mom didn't?"

Hill's question goes beyond fairness about pardons. The entire criminal justice system has needed revamping for decades, but politicians know they will get little political benefit from reforming the system. Voters respond favorably to "lock 'em up and throw away the key."

The incarceration rate has more than tripled since 1980, according to the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). At the end of 1999, state and federal prisons housed 1,284,894 inmates. There were 687,973 others incarcerated in local jails. Drug offenders serving time amounted to only 9.3 percent of the prison population in 1983, but this number had jumped to 22 percent by 1996. Nineteen percent of those in state prisons are there for drug offenses, according to BJS.

As more people go to prison for even low-level drug offenses, public attitudes are shifting. According to a Gallup Poll in 1989, 38 percent of the public believed drugs to be our most serious problem. By 1999, Gallup found only 5 percent of the public felt that way.

Dale Hill has two boys, ages 14 and 7. He says his wife divorced him, but he wants to be a father to his children. His release date is November 2005, but he is ineligible for parole until he has served 12 years and two months of his sentence. That's because of what Hill says are unfair mandatory sentencing guidelines.

Such guidelines do not consider rehabilitation but serve only as punishment long after a lesson has been learned and the threats to society diminished. First offenders can be turned into hardened criminals who are greater threats to society when they come out than when they went in.

People in prison are uniquely attuned to fairness. The Clinton pardons have become an issue behind prison walls. I can't imagine any inmate thinking that all of those who received breaks from Bill Clinton deserved them. Dale Hill believes he deserved what he didn't get. That's why he tells me he's starting the process over again and petitioning President Bush, hoping he understands the difference between fairness and a payoff.

Cal Thomas writes for Tribune Media Services.



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