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December 7, 2016

At 11th hour, more advocacy for Prez Obama to make big 11th-hour clemency push

As regular readers may recall, and as I cannot help but highlight these days, I was aggressively calling for Prez Obama to make significant use of his clemency power from literally his first day in office.  This January 20, 2009 post was titled "Is it too early to start demanding President Obama use his clemency power?" and in 2010 I authored this article in the New England Journal on Criminal and Civil Confinement under the title "Turning Hope-and-Change Talk Into Clemency Action for Nonviolent Drug Offenders."

I suppose I should be happy that, with Prez Obama on his way out the door, a lot of other folks are now finally joining this call for action with some urgency.  This New York Times editorial, headlined "President Obama’s Last Chance to Show Mercy," is today's example of the clemency chorus now growing. Here are excerpts:

The Constitution gives presidents nearly unlimited authority to grant pardons and commute sentences — decisions that no future administration can reverse. Unfortunately, for most of his presidency, Barack Obama treated mercy as an afterthought. Even as thousands of men and women endured outrageously long sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses as a result of the nation’s misguided drug war, Mr. Obama granted relief to only a tiny handful.

In the last two years, however, Mr. Obama has changed course. In 2014 he directed the Justice Department to systematically review cases of people serving out sentences that would be far shorter had they been convicted under new, more lenient sentencing laws.

While that clemency process has moved far too slowly — beset by both administrative obstacles and bureaucratic resistance — grants have been accelerating throughout 2016. Mr. Obama has now shortened or ended the sentences of more than 1,000 prisoners, and he will most likely be the first president since Lyndon Johnson to leave office with a smaller federal prison population than he inherited.

There are thousands more people deserving of release, but their prospects under the next administration don’t look good. President-elect Donald Trump ran on a “law and order” platform that sounded a lot like the punitive approach that led to exploding prison populations in the first place. His choice for attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, has fiercely opposed criminal sentencing reform and called Mr. Obama’s grants of clemency an abuse of power. In other words, for many federal inmates, their last hope lies in Mr. Obama’s hands.

Up to now, the president has reviewed clemency requests on a case-by-case basis. With only weeks left in office, Mr. Obama should consider a bolder approach: blanket commutations for those inmates still serving time under an old law that punished possession or sale of crack cocaine far more harshly than powder cocaine — a meaningless distinction that sent disproportionate numbers of young black and Latino men to prison for decades....

The idea of blanket commutations is being pushed by a coalition of criminal-justice reform advocates, including former judges and prosecutors, who urged the president in a letter last week to use his clemency power aggressively while he still can.  The group called for the release of thousands more nonviolent offenders in low-risk categories, including elderly inmates, who are the least likely of all to commit new crimes, and those with convictions for drugs other than crack.  The coalition argues that it is possible to make these grants in the short time remaining, if the administration is committed to getting it done.

Mr. Trump may well dismantle a lot of Mr. Obama’s legacy, but he can’t touch grants of clemency.  Mr. Obama has taken important steps toward unwinding the decades-long imprisonment binge.  With much of that progress now at risk, he has only a few weeks left to ensure a measure of justice and mercy for thousands of people.

December 7, 2016 at 10:27 AM | Permalink

Comments

I trust that all agree with me---to the extent Obama grants clemency, let's hope that the prisoners live up to the faith Obama has placed in them.

Posted by: federalist | Dec 7, 2016 11:22:16 AM

You've been a relentless supporter of this act of mercy and compassion.

I do know many who have received this gift from presidents - from Nixon to Obama. Those I know are remarkable people who have worked very hard to show that the president's trust was not misplaced.

The push for clemency is for consideration of categories of offenders who could be released with little risk to public safety. There are thousands. One category that I'm particularly familiar with is nonviolent marijuana offenders who have received life sentences or defacto life sentences. This sentence for this category is particularly difficult to justify now that 28 states have legalized marijuana to some degree.
These sentences are not fiscally responsible.

When Eric Holder announced the administration's clemency initiative, he talked about 10,000 commutations. We now have over 1,000, but that number does not meet the promise that so many offenders and their families have longed for. Carving out categories is sensible and prudent.

Posted by: beth | Dec 7, 2016 1:11:12 PM

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