« Lots of new and notable recent state marijuana reform developments | Main | "The only way to get rid of racial bias in death penalty cases is to get rid of the death penalty" »

May 5, 2016

Prez Obama commutes 58 more federal drug sentences

As detailed via this terse White House press release, "On May 5, 2016, President Barack Obama granted commutation of sentence to 58 individuals." The release lists the 58 new recepients of executive clemency, and a quick scan reveals that all appear to be drug defendants and most involving cocaine and/or crack.

This press release from NACDL adds these notable particulars: "In his second set of clemency grants in under six weeks, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 58 prisoners today, 28 of whom were applicants whose petitions were supported by Clemency Project 2014."

UPDATE:  I just saw that Prez Obama now has this new Medium entry headlined "A Nation of Second Chances." Here are excerpts:

Earlier this spring, I met with a group of individuals whose sentences were commuted either by President Bush, President Clinton, or myself. They were all at different stages of a new chapter in their lives, but each of their stories was extraordinary.

Take Phillip Emmert. When he was 27, Phillip made a mistake. He was arrested and convicted for distributing methamphetamines and received a 27-year sentence. So, by the time he was released, he’d have spent half his life behind bars. Unfortunately, while in prison, his wife was paralyzed in an accident. So while he was in prison, Phil learned everything he could about fixing heating and air conditioning systems — so he could support his wife when he got out. And after his sentence was commuted by President Bush, he was able to do just that. Today, he’s gainfully employed. He’s a caregiver for his wife, an active father, and a leader in his community.

Like so many nonviolent offenders serving unduly harsh sentences, Phillip is not a hardened criminal. He’s taken responsibility for his mistakes. And he’s worked hard to earn a second chance.

Today, I commuted the sentences of an additional 58 individuals just as deserving as Phillip — individuals who can look to him as inspiration for what is possible in their lives.

As President, I’ve been working to bring about a more effective approach to our criminal justice system, particularly when it comes to drug crimes. Part of that effort has been to reinvigorate our commutations process, and highlight the individuals like Philip who are doing extraordinary things with their second chances. To date, I will have commuted 306 individual sentences, which is more than the previous six presidents combined....

As a country, we have to make sure that those who take responsibility for their mistakes are able to transition back to their communities. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do. And it’s something I will keep working to do as long as I hold this office.

May 5, 2016 at 04:08 PM | Permalink

Comments

Go, Mr. President, go!!!

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | May 5, 2016 5:01:38 PM

Appreciated but such small numbers continue to be a concern.

Also in the news today: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/merrick-garland-drug-sentencing-richard-smith_us_57225b30e4b0f309baf0345f

Posted by: Joe | May 5, 2016 5:16:23 PM

It's amazing--Obama lies through his teeth--not all of the criminals he has released are "non-violent." How do I know--he released someone with a robbery conviction.

Doug, why are you cool with that?

Posted by: federalist | May 5, 2016 9:58:06 PM

We're hoping for many more. Again, the vast majority were for "conspiracy" to ----

Posted by: beth | May 6, 2016 1:04:09 AM

Why not other offenses? Mail fraud, bank fraud, wire fraud, tax fraud/evasion and many more? Are those just not as deserving? Surely, there are plenty of these types of offenses that have been subject to excessive sentences. Indeed, the defendants serving the longest period of imprisonment are not drug offenders, but white collar offenders who have received 110, 115, 150, 850 years imprisonment.

Or is it because those white collar crimes have identifiable victims, where as most drug crimes don't have a set of identifiable victims (rather than just the community as a whole)?

Anyone have any thoughts?

Posted by: Brian | May 6, 2016 3:01:35 AM

federalist, a robbery can be nonviolent in practice. Do you know the particulars of the case you find problematic?

Posted by: Doug B. | May 6, 2016 8:36:30 AM

I hope Obama's clemency or pardon list gets a bit longer.

Posted by: BarkinDog | May 6, 2016 10:22:16 AM

Brian-
I totally agree, why not pardon other offenses? Plenty of blue-collar crimes that are not "drug offenses".
Obama seems set on only helping certain kinds of criminals get pardons. Even though he spouts off about "everyone having a chance to redeem themselves" he is obviously only concerned about one type of prison population.
Glad his term is almost over.

Posted by: kat | May 6, 2016 11:20:15 AM

Armed bank robbery ain't a non-violent offense---plus a lot of these cats have priors.

Posted by: federalist | May 6, 2016 6:57:10 PM

good job obama!
i waiting for trump said ...about drug :/

Posted by: tomy | May 8, 2016 2:42:41 PM

federalist, I could not find on the latest clemency list anyone with an armed bank robbery conviction or even robbery. What case are you referencing?

Posted by: Doug B. | May 8, 2016 8:01:44 PM

Doug, in a previous round of clemencies, he commuted the sentence of a bank robber---his comments were about all of his clemencies, not just this batch. Also, when he says non-violent, he's lying. A lot of these guys have violent priors.

As a law prof, you should be calling out this dishonesty. Or do you think Wendell Callahan was a "non-violent" offender when he was released early?

And I am not saying that a violent prior should result in no clemency. As you know, I support a robust clemency process, but I don't support half-truths or outright lies. And what about the "one mistake" lie? Many of these guys have serious priors. Apparently, you're cool with dishonesty so long as you get what you support.

I will reiterate my wish that all of these guys live productive lives and reward the faith that President Obama has placed in them.

Posted by: federalist | May 9, 2016 9:52:41 AM

Federalist, you keep throwing out generalities. Doug asked you for a specific offender...can you name the offender with either a violent instant offense or with a violent prior so that your claim could be investigated...or are you just being a typical right winger and throwing out "facts" that are simply "well, I heard on the internet..."

Posted by: Kelly | May 9, 2016 3:32:11 PM

Wendell Callahan was not released due to a Presidential commutation or pardon, but due to the changes in the sentencing guidelines. So, he was actually released by a federal judge, as any release due to the retroactive nature of the guidelines change had to be done by the sentencing judge. So, you are comparing apples to oranges. You need a fact checker

Posted by: Kelly | May 9, 2016 3:45:43 PM

Doug,how dumb is Kelly? Whether or not Callahan was released under a clemency program--the point, which has been made, and which should be obvious to idiots like Kelly is that in Callahan's case, only non-violent offenders were supposed to be sprung, and quite clearly, Callahan, with his history of violence was decidedly NOT non-violent. Same goes here---Obama's clemency program is being touted by him and others as righting the wrong of sentencing non-violent criminals too harshly. I point out a bank robber in the pile---Carolyn Yvonne Butler--and I don't check my facts?

But of course Doug and Kelly, you cannot address the underlying dishonesty--was George Axum a guy who just made a mistake? What about ernest spiller? They had priors before they were sentenced.

All I ask for is a little bit of honesty on the part of the President.

Posted by: federalist | May 10, 2016 5:52:27 AM

No Federalist, you are showing your ignorance. Callahan was released due to the UNITED STATES SENTENCING COMMISSION'S changes to the drug guidelines and the subsequent FSA (which was a bipartisan bill passed by the REPUBLICAN CONGRESS) and signed by the President. It was not due to the President acting alone by clemency. The JUDGE in charge of letting him go was supposed to only do so for non-violent offenders, but decided to release him anyway. The last I checked, JUDGES are not beholden to the President for each decision and in fact act independent of the Executive Branch. Here ends the lesson.

Posted by: Kelly | May 10, 2016 1:59:09 PM

Kelly, you are plumb stupid. In a previous posts, Doug and I have debated about Wendell Callahan. Sorry you are coming late to the party, but I do full well understand the program under which Callahan was released, as the issue was thoroughly discussed in numerous threads. The point (which I also made in previous posts) is that the public is told about "non-violent" criminals being released and then, lo and behold, scrutiny shows that many who are violent, in fact, are being released, whether the releases are via clemency or retroactive changes to the guidelines. In other words, it's the dishonesty stupid. And, I pray you get this, the public is being lied to by Obama AND those who assured us only "non-violent" offenders would get released under the Fair Sentencing Act. That's why I bring up Callahan in this discussion--I a;so bring it up because Doug just can't quite bring himself to admit that Callahan IS a violent criminal and has labored mightily to argue that Ohio is more to blame than the feds that let him out early. (Note to Doug: that Ohio is to blame doesn't mean that the early release isn't as well).

What I find interesting--people like Doug and apparently Kelly are good with dishonesty to the public (and I think it plain that the "one mistake" is just so much BS--these guys didn't attract the interest of federal prosecutors for being minor criminals--there are exceptions--I get that--and the "non-violent" is an out and out lie) so long as criminals are getting released. I know your fig leaf---if the crime for which the criminal was convicted didn't overtly involve violence, then you'd argue that "non-violent" is apt--by that rationale, Capone was non-violent because he went away for tax evasion.

And if you think that a guy who ran a crack house in E. St. Louis (Ernest Spiller) (a seriously "hard" place) didn't know about using violence to protect his business, I have a bridge I'd like to sell you.

Posted by: federalist | May 10, 2016 2:30:48 PM

federalist: as I understand your assertion here, you think it is a "lie" to say non-violent offenders are being released even when the focal crime of conviction/punishment the release is connected to is, in-fact, a non-violent offense. Wouldn't it be more accurate under this world-view to say that the focal offense of conviction is the "lie" --- and in turn blame whomever is responsible for this (dishonest) conviction in the first place?

More to the point, I suppose, I struggle to see what is fundamentally dishonest with wanting to have the legal system actually convict and punish (and release) based on the formal crime. I can understand if you want to claim like Bill Bennett that any dealing of any illegal drug in any way should be defined as per se violent, but I really think claim disorts the common meaning of the term violent (in contrast to, say, a term like harmful). Certainly, all the dispensaries selling marijuana from storefronts in dozens of states do not seem to me at all violent (or even harmful).

Posted by: Doug B. | May 10, 2016 3:11:16 PM

As for George Axam, it seems he had served more that 10 years for the federal crime of illegal gun possession after he fired a warning shot at a man who had previously beaten him up (and faced criminal charges for having beaten Axam). Moreover, the judge who sentenced him originally wanted to give him only 18 months in prison for his illegal gun possession, but the appeals court concluded he was subject to a 15-year MM under ACCA.
http://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/ca11/07-12987/200712987-2011-02-28.html

As for Carolyn Yvonne Butler, she was convicted of having "brandished a small, silver gun" while robbing three banks and got a 48-year prison sentence based on stacked mandatory minimum gun sentencing provisions (924(c)s). Interestingly, the Fifth Circuit (known as perhaps the toughest of appeals courts on sentencing issues) indicated that it affirmed her convictions "with great regret for the harshness of this mandatory sentence imposed on this appellant."
https://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/opinions/unpub/92/92-5666.0.wpd.pdf. And Butler served roughly 25 years before getting her sentence commutted

I think it quite proper for you to assert that these two persons are NOT nonviolent drug offenders. But I also think it is right to view both these cases as examples of extreme applications of federal mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. (I also assume/hope that these individuals behaved well in prison and had, in this way, "earned" consideration for commutation.)

Posted by: Doug B. | May 10, 2016 3:37:01 PM

Doug, when ordinary, intelligent people hear "non-violent criminal", they take that to mean someone who hasn't committed a crime of violence. They don't take it to mean what the guy happens to be in for and ignore everything else. So yes, it's a lie. If you want to ignore criminal history in clemency, fine--but be honest about it.

And, Doug, you realize that I don't necessarily have an issue with Butler's commutation. I don't know all the facts, so I can't speak to what I would do, but I think that likely the clemency was justified.

But Obama's being dishonest here. In a nation of 350 million people, as Hamilton said, there are going to be overly harsh sentences, and that's what clemency is there for. Obama is painting a picture of a racist justice system that is fundamentally unjust. Ernest Spiller, for example, didn't get an overly harsh sentence. Plus, there's the dichotomy between what the guy actually did and what he got convicted of (in plea deals).

Posted by: federalist | May 11, 2016 9:41:42 AM

Fair points, federalist, but I encourage you to think about whether it is fair to describe the entire federal CCJ system as "dishonest" or a "lie" because, as you rightly note, there is often a "dichotomy between what the guy actually did and what he got convicted of." And I know you do not think the system is "racist" and dislike when Obama or others seek to portray it that way, but it remains the perception that prominent white guys like Denny Hastert or Jack Camp get to better exploit the "dichotomy between what the guy actually did and what he got convicted of" than do folks like Weldon Angelos or George Axam or Carolyn Yvonne Butler. (Of course, this might reall be a class story much more than a race story, but you surely know well has these issues get mingled.)

Last but not least, I respect your eagerness to keep Obama honest, but he seems to me to be a lot more responsible in his use of words and rhetoric in this arena than lots and lots of others.

Posted by: Doug B. | May 11, 2016 12:35:21 PM

Obama is straight-up lying when he portrays these people as making "one mistake" when the vast majority of them clearly led a life of crime before the crime that got them a stiff federal sentence. You can elide that all you want, but it's fundamentally dishonest and it brings the justice system into unfair disrepute. As for "non-violent," the same goes.

If Obama wants to portray the justice system as racist and cruel, then he'll have to get better arguments, and I don't see how it's responsible to use dishonesty to undermine a system that, for all its warts, keeps us safe. As for Hastert, his crime was an administrative one, so you are comparing apples to oranges. Camp--federal judge--that explains a lot, see, e.g., Alcee Hastings.

But it is interesting to me--you will talk about the supposed racism of the CJ system--but you never seem to acknowledge the differing crime rates of different groups, decisions to let places like Ferguson burn instead of enforcing the law (in one extreme case, take a look at the Seattle Mardi Gras riots--tell me the victim there wasn't the victim of studied indifference to his life because the cops were afraid to be called racist)--that sort of thing is directly traceable to irresponsible rhetoric by the President and others. We all saw the pictures after Ferguson--innocent citizens having to endure the shame of thugs jumping up and down on their cars (while they were in them) and law enforcement's refusal to do anything about it. (One of the reasons we have a 2d Amendment). And while I am at it Doug, pray tell how Obama's rhetoric about the Michael Brown shooting was "responsible" when it is painfully clear that the shooting was completely a case of self-defense?

Posted by: federalist | May 11, 2016 1:18:30 PM

federalist:

1. In the Medium piece linked above he states that Phillip Emmert has "taken responsibility for his mistakes" (PLURAL). Can you provide a link/reference to where Obama himself states that all his clemency recipients only made "one mistake"?

2. On the "racist and cruel" front, your assertion that the system "keeps us safe" is not inconsistent with claims by others that it is racist and cruel. We can and perhaps should look at LWOP sentences for juves and nonviolent crimes. I assume you think that most LWOP sentences will keep us safer than alternatives. But I think LWOP sentences for juves and nonviolent crimes are cruel, and there is lots of evidence suggesteing these cruel sentences get applied in racially disparate ways. See, e.g.,
-- http://fairpunishment.org/racial-disparities-plague-nonviolent-lwop-sentences/ ("the distribution of nonviolent LWOP is: 65.8% of prisoners serving the sentence are African-American; 17.8% of prisoners serving the sentence are white; 15.7% of prisoners serving the sentence are Latino")
-- http://fairsentencingofyouth.org/the-issue/advocacy-resource-bank/racial-inequality-in-youth-sentencing/ ("One out of every 8 African-American youth who are convicted of killing someone will be sentenced to life without parole, however this is only the case for one out of every 13 white youth convicted of murder.")

3. My reference to Obama's "use of words and rhetoric in this arena" was a reference to prison/sentencing reform, not police practices. He certainly has been better in this arena of sentencing reform than, say, Bill Otis whom you rightly assailed for repeatedly calling a simple accurate statement by a staffer about the Callahan case "racist." In the police practices arena, however, I largely agree that Prez Obama and lots and lots of others have used terminology and rhetoric that generate too much heat and not nearly enough light.

Posted by: Doug B. | May 12, 2016 10:10:20 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB