In an effort to oppose federal drug sentencing reform, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly attacked a group of Hollywood celebrities by taking them out of context and ignoring the racial realities behind federal incarceration rates.
On the April 10 edition of The O'Reilly Factor, O'Reilly belittled musicians and movie actors Will Smith, Mark Wahlberg, Cameron Diaz, Jamie Foxx, Jim Carrey and others for penning a letter to the White House suggesting President Obama take further steps to alleviate inefficiencies and inequalities in the federal criminal justice system. O'Reilly cherry picked quotes from the letter to misrepresent their message and ignored any discussion of their actual recommendations. Instead, the Fox News host transitioned into a tirade of insults and out-of-context statistics in an attempt to distort the true picture of America's prison structure.
O'Reilly devoted much of the segment to disparaging guest Bob Beckel and to the semantic task of crafting his own definition of “violent crime” - a definition federal criminal law does not recognize. He completely ignored the celebrities' substantive recommendations for prison and sentencing reform and avoided a balanced discussion of federal penal policy.
Wahlberg and company pointed to racial inequalities in drug sentencing that persist despite the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (FSA). The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) agreed in November 2012 that more had to be done, writing that despite the passage of the FSA, “selling a small quantity of crack cocaine (28 grams) carries the same mandatory minimum sentence - five years - as selling 500 grams of powder cocaine.” From a racial justice standpoint, this matters because crack cocaine is disproportionately found in African-American communities, while powder cocaine turns up more frequently in white communities. O'Reilly ignored the problem altogether.
The celebrity letter to President Obama also raised concerns about severe mandatory sentencing laws and suggested the president get behind the bipartisan Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, which would provide federal judges with more sentencing discretion in appropriate circumstances. Personalities across the political spectrum, from Grover Norquist to Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy (VT), support the legislation.
Mandatory sentencing provisions have been widely criticized by judges, the media, and even the United States Sentencing Commission, which published a 2011 report finding that mandatory minimum sentences are often “excessively severe” and not “narrowly tailored to apply only to those offenders who warrant such punishment,” especially for drug offenders.
An intellectually honest conversation about the U.S. prison system would have revealed that it's almost universally perceived to be broken. But O'Reilly's segment ignored the concept of severe sentencing, asking instead, “Who's in the prisons? Terrible people, that's who.”