A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama Soft on Crime?


With a handful of days to go before Election Day, the Republican Federal Committee of Pennsylvania is going after Sen. Barack Obama with a mailer that claims the presidential nominee has “a record of being soft on crime.” Luckily, our fellow fact-checkers at PolitiFact.com are all over this one. According to PolitiFact, the mailer (also being distributed in Florida) “cherry-picks a few choice examples and conveniently ignores evidence that contradicts its conclusions.”

For example, the mailer says that Obama is “against tougher penalties for street gangs,” referring to Obama’s vote against HB 1812 in the Illinois state Senate. We actually wrote about Obama’s vote on this legislation back in April when the National Campaign Fund released an ad making similar claims about Obama being “weak” on gang killers and terrorists.

The bill in question would have made anyone found guilty of a murder committed “in furtherance of the activities of an organized gang” eligible for death. Obama voted against the bill, saying that Illinois law already made murderers eligible for death in instances where the crime was committed in “a cold, premeditated and calculated” manner. He also expressed concern that the legislation would likely target particular neighborhoods and individuals. Even the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Susana Mendoza of Chicago, said that she didn’t think Obama was weak on crime and that he opposed her bill for valid reasons.

Furthermore, Politifact notes that Obama’s votes in favor of legislation in 2003 (prohibiting released gang members from associating with their old gang compadres) and 2004 (making gang recruiting at a school a crime) could be used to make the exact opposite claim about Obama. You can read PolitiFact’s full analysis of the mailer here.

The mailer comes right on the heels of a similar attack against the Illinois senator from the Republican National Committee and the McCain-Palin campaign. In a robo-call going out in battleground states, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani says, “You need to know that Barack Obama opposes mandatory prison sentences for sex offenders, drug dealers, and murderers.” He continues, “It’s true, I read Obama’s words myself.” Leaving out the word “minimum,” Giuliani’s words make it seem as though Obama is against just “mandatory” jail time, which isn’t the case.

At a 2003 Illinois Senate debate, when asked if he would “vote to abolish mandatory minimum jail sentences,” Obama answered “I would,” adding that “mandatory minimums take too much discretion away from judges.” Obama gave a non-specific answer to a broad question. More recently, an Obama-Biden fact sheet on the campaign Web site says that Obama will “reform mandatory minimums,” but it specifically refers to drug offenders, with no mention of sex offenders and murderers. The fact sheet reads: Obama and Biden “will immediately review these sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the ineffective warehousing of nonviolent drug offenders.” Obama made a similar statement about sentencing for “nonviolent” offenders during a speech at Howard University in 2007, but again, there was no mention of sex offenders or murderers:

Obama (Sept. 27, 2007): When I’m President, I will. We will review these sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the blind and counterproductive warehousing of non-violent offenders. And we will give first-time, non-violent drug offenders a chance to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior. So let’s reform this system. Let’s do what’s smart. Let’s do what’s just.

Obama’s answer in 2003 suggests that he was in favor of eliminating mandatory minimum sentences in general. But his more recent statements specify that he wants to reexamine sentencing for “non-violent” drug offenders.