Roundtable: Bush's Plan to Boost Troops, Sentencing Revisited
And now we are going to pick up this discussion with our Roundtable. Today we've got author and economist Julianne Malveaux. She is president and CEO of Last Word Productions, Inc. Also with us is political consultant Walter Fields, and Bob Meadows, writer for People magazine.
Welcome to everybody. And Julianne, let me start with you. Having heard what Kristi said about how hard it is for the families who are in some ways themselves on the frontlines, what kind of responsibility do we as a nation have to these families?
Ms. JULIANNE MALVEAUX (President and CEO of Last Word Productions): Farai, I think that was a really great interview, and it is really important to put a human face behind the people that Mr. Bush so callously refers to as troops. They are not troops; they are human beings.
When he talks about troops it's easy to lose the personal stories like Kristi's story and so many of the other stories that we've been hearing about people who spent most of their married life apart, about children who are born and haven't seen their fathers and mothers yet - or their fathers, usually. Just the dynamics of the human story is something that I think we are losing sight of.
This war is - the burden of this war is not being evenly spread in these United States at all. You have 132,000 people there now, we're going to add another 21,500 people, but that - as a nation of nearly 300 million people, that's a tiny number of people who are basically shouldering the burden of this ill-advised war.
And Mr. Bush really was remiss. I mean that was one of the most delusional speeches I have ever heard in life. It's like telling you that the new Coke is different from the old Coke. You know, new and improved. If we were going to do something, it seems that we, you know, many military strategists don't believe that what we're doing is going to make that much of a difference. We really need to bring these people home.
But more importantly, people like Kristi have to be embraced by our communities. People have to be, you know, we need to be supporting these people more in both material and in non-material ways. And we really have to hear these human stories. The media must pay attention to the people.
And I must say that, you know, The Washington Post, The New York Times have done some of it. You're seeing these personal stories. It's the only way we'd know some of the local papers. But we need to see a lot more of that, and these folks are - they are doing our work. We need to be celebrating them.
CHIDEYA: Walter, what about what Kristi mentioned in terms of her husband being promised four years stateside or in a non-combat position and earlier today the new secretary of defense acknowledging basically that the military was rotating people through Iraq faster than it had before? How much can we expect from these gentlemen, even - and women? Even if they are dedicated Marines and soldiers, they are being put in a position where they are being pushed really hard?
Mr. WALTER FIELDS (CEO and Publisher, NorthStarNetwork.com): Well, at this point, you know, I think any enlisted man or woman should just understand that any promises made will be broken by this administration. And I think that they are an overtaxed group of individuals who are serving our country right now.
You know, listening to the president last night, you know, it just really disturbed and he might as well put a gone fishing sign out in front of the White House because he is really - this was the ultimate Hail Mary pass. And we talk about 21,000 troops, but in reality, 4,000 of those troops are going to be in Anbar province. So we are talking 17,500 in Baghdad. By all estimates, even those who wanted an increase in troops, that number is way too low.
And I think what the president is trying to do is to put a Band-Aid on an open sore, and this isn't going to work. And we're going to have our young men and women who are going to rotate through this, and, you know, the fatalities alone are going to be tremendous. But what we're going to have deal with when people come back home after experiencing this war, that is a situation that I don't think we're prepared for, whether it's the physical disability or the mental issues that families and spouses are going to have to deal with as a result of this war. That's a toll that this country I think can't (unintelligible) to think about right now.
CHIDEYA: And Bob, you know, it was Kristi and I believe also Brian that mentioned that people come back different. People do come back, you know, even if you're not physically wounded, you come back with a different sense of the world and your place in it. We in this country have not always been so good about responding to people who've returned. During the Vietnam era there were a lot of people who felt alienated when they returned to the U.S. Will we do a better job now, you think?
Mr. BOB MEADOWS (Writer, People Magazine): I hope that we do. I know that a couple of years ago that was a very big deal. There were a lot of Vietnam veterans who really, after that war, really went and really took it to Congress - and a lot of them are in Congress now or have served - and really to make it an extra point of yes, we really have to take care of our soldiers. Whether or not that's going to get done. Historically, it hasn't. Back in World War I they called it coming home shell-shocked. Vietnam is different story, but it's all the same thing.
It's your trauma; post-traumatic stress disorders is what they're calling it nowadays. We really have to take care of these soldiers. And you have to wonder, is that really going to happen. Because it doesn't seem like we're allocating money toward this war and all this great fighting, but are we going to take care of the soldiers. That has to be done because, as Walter said, these soldiers are coming home. They're not dead as much as - they're not dying at the rates they used to because of the wonderful medical care that they're getting. But now they're coming home without legs, without arms, without multiple limbs, burnt up, then they have to face the trauma of that now.
CHIDEYA: I want to turn us to another topic. We - certainly we'll continue to cover the war and the issue for the families at home. But I want to turn to Congress, which is expected to revisit sentencing laws later this month. Under the new leadership of Representative John Conyers of Michigan, the House Judiciary Committee is planning to revisit federal sentencing laws that require lengthy mandated prison terms for certain offenses.
One of the things that you hear a lot about is how crack cocaine is 100 times more of a mandatory sentence than powder cocaine and the racial implications of that. Now the federal judges in particular are eager to see a change because they say these automatic sentences deprive judges of the discretion that they need to do their jobs. Julianne, what can we expect from a real hearing on these issues of mandatory minimum sentences?
Ms. MALVEAUX: Well, I think the - injustices will be pointed out, as people have been talking about this for the past decade or so, Farai, since we've had the mandatory sentencing. You know, five grams of crack cocaine will get you 10 years or 5 years, 500 grams of powder cocaine. So, you know, that 100 to one ratio makes no sense at all.
We have seen the - you know, this is targeted toward the black community. We have seen the disproportionate incarceration of African-American people, especially men, around this. And so I think we will see some changes. But I would like to see the Congress also look at the issue of sentence expunging.
Reverend Jesse Jackson has been talking about it a bit. Barbara Lee in California, Congresswoman Lee, has been having people petition to have their sentences expunged. There's a state legislator in North Carolina doing the same thing because essentially sideline people from the labor market, when they're convicted of these minor drug offenses, end up spending a very long time in jail.
So I know that they're looking at the one issue of sentencing. But I wish they would also couple it with some conversation about rehabilitation, taking a look at that, which Congresswoman Lee has been doing.
CHIDEYA: Walter, why do you think the government has been so reluctant to give up - the government meaning Congress - has been so reluctant to give this power which the judges say should be theirs?
Mr. FIELDS: Well, you need to understand where this all came from. In the 1980s there was an explosion of crack and in there was a knee-jerk reaction to that explosion and we enacted these mandatory minimums. And what happened - because of that, you really had an explosion of the prison industry. That's when we started seeing private prisons being built all around the country because the numbers were just so huge of the people we were putting behind bars. And that was a very profitable industry and continues to be a profitable industry.
I think many lawmakers who took this tough-on-crime attitude for years have stood on that platform, particularly when running for office, because it's a platform that makes people feel secure. But what people have begun to realize is that it's a failed policy. And unfortunately, when we passed these mandatory minimums, we put everybody in the same pot - drug users and drug pushers.
And what I'd like to see happen is not only the relaxation of these mandatory minimums, but I'd like to have more than just a criminal justice response to the drug crisis in America. We really need to have a health policy response to this issue, too, because we are putting behind bars people who are minor users when they shouldn't be there in the first place.
These people need help. They need some healthcare. They need some real professional help. So I think and along with the idea of relaxing this mandatory minimums and giving judges more discretion, I hope Congress will also see that you can't solve this problem simply with a criminal justice reflex. It will never work.
CHIDEYA: Now Bob, do you think that the new leadership will really make a difference? Obviously, John Conyers is a long time congressional representative. He's African-American. He's someone who understands the African-American community. Will his leadership really make a turn in how things unfold in this discussion?
Mr. MEADOWS: Not necessarily, and the reason I say that is because back when all these laws were enacted, the Democrats controlled Congress. So they were the ones who did them. And as was pointed out, these laws were a reaction to what was going on.
I mean at the time we'd never heard of drive-bys, carjacking and AK-47s. All those entered during this times, and so that's what all these minimum laws were a response to. And truth be told, black people were the short shrift back before when judges had all this discretion. So I - and they're getting it now.
So even if they go back to it, I don't have any faith that black people are still not going to reach this type - or still going to get a fair shake because historically it just hasn't happened and I don't have that much faith in people.
CHIDEYA: All right, well, we're going to wrap it up right here. Bob Meadows, writer for People magazine, political consultant Walter Fields, and author economist Julianne Malveaux. She's president and CEO of Last Word Productions Incorporated. Thank you all for joining us.
Ms. MALVEAUX: Thank you.
Mr. MEADOWS: Thank you.
Mr. FIELDS: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Next on NEWS AND NOTES, our Political Corner takes on African-Americans leading powerful congressional committees, and the film "God Grew Tired of Us," shows how Sudan's lost voice found a home in America.
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