It appears that President Obama is poised to grant clemency to a substantial number of people thrown in jail as a result of asinine “mandatory minimum” sentences imposed on non-violent drug offenders during the last twenty-thirty years.
Obama…wants to use his previously dormant pardon power as part of a larger strategy to restore fairness to the criminal-justice system. A senior administration official tells Yahoo News the president could grant clemency to “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of people locked up for nonviolent drug crimes by the time he leaves office — a stunning number that hasn’t been seen since Gerald Ford extended amnesty to Vietnam draft dodgers in the 1970s. The scope of the new clemency initiative is so large that administration officials are preparing a series of personnel and process changes to help them manage the influx of petitions they expect Obama to approve. Among the changes is reforming the recently censured office within the Justice Department responsible for processing pardon petitions. Yahoo News has learned that the pardon attorney, Ronald Rodgers, who was criticized in a 2012 Internal watchdog report for mishandling a high-profile clemency petition, is likely to step down as part of that overhaul. Additional procedures for handling large numbers of clemency petitions could be announced as soon as this week, a senior administration official said, though it could take longer.
Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed today that “at the request of the White House,” the criteria for clemency consideration would be expanded with new guidelines to be issued this week (see also Meteor Blades’ post here). The link to the Justice Department’s video message can be found here.
From a personal perspective, the inanity of these draconian laws has become all too apparent to me as I’ve grown into middle age. Nearly all of my friends in college and high school during the late 70’s and 80’s were drug users. Most at one point or another in their late teens or early twenties would have been in possession of amounts of illegal drugs sufficient to have resulted in their incarceration for years if not decades under “mandatory minimum” statutes. The following is a list of just a few of their current professions:
State Representative Colorectal surgeon Environmental scientist Psychologist Attorney (several) CEO of multimillion dollar government contractor English Professor Computer programmer, nuclear facility Chief Attending Physician, ER, major Philadelphia hospital Realtor
These people are not only pillars of their communities, they are their communities. None of them has committed an offense against the public. All of them have stable families and coach their kids’ Little League teams, along with all the other former drug user parents sitting in the stands and volunteering for the PTA. Alternatively, each one of these people could be rotting in jail at the taxpayers’ expense, contributing absolutely nothing to humanity (or the country, for that matter), their lives and futures effectively nullified.
The last three Presidents have been admitted drug users. Wikipedia has even compiled a list of admitted cannabis users in the U.S. Congress and Senate. Based on sheer statistical odds, at least 50% of the current makeup of Congress and the Senate are likely former or current users of illegal drugs. The real figure is probably quite higher. A complete overhaul of these insane, discriminatory, antiquated, reactionary drug laws is long, long past overdue. Many states are beginning to take the hint, as has the Justice Department. However, the Presidential Pardon power would be the most visible manifestation of the need to get rid of these laws.
The number of clemencies authorized by this Administration has up to this point been abysmal. Beyond his support for the Fair Sentencing Act, signed into law in 2010, which reduced the racially-motivated disparity between sentences involving “crack” vs powder cocaine users, Obama’s efforts to reduce the inequities meted out to nonviolent offenders has been relatively non-existent. According to a study by ProPublica:
[Obama] has given pardons to roughly 1 of every 50 individuals whose applications were processed by the Justice Department. At this point in his presidency, Ronald Reagan had pardoned 1 of every 3 such applicants. George H.W. Bush had pardoned 1 in 16. Bill Clinton had pardoned 1 in 8. George W. Bush had pardoned 1 in 33.
The Yahoo News article linked above clearly shows that the Administration was well aware of how poorly this issue was being handled, but it wasn’t until shortly before the end of his first term that the President began to pay serious attention to the issue. Whether that was his own fault or that of his advisors isn’t crystal clear but the most than be charitably gleaned from the article is that the pace of change has been glacial up to this point, and riven by internal feuding. The most recent initiative grew out of discussions between Obama, the White House Counsel and the Justice Department and it now appears (hopefully) that the number of commutations and pardons will increase dramatically.
According to former and current administration officials, the fault for this lay mostly at the feet of the Office of the Pardon Attorney, a small corner of the Justice Department that sifts through thousands of pardon and commutation petitions each year. The pardon attorney, former military judge Ronald Rodgers, sends his recommendations of whether or not to grant the petitions to the Deputy Attorney General’s office, which then sends them on to the White House. The pardon attorney was recommending that the president deny nearly every single petition for a pardon or a reduced sentence, according to one senior official in the Obama administration
The article suggests that the Pardon Office, responsible for vetting and recommending individual cases to the President, had an entrenched history of stonewalling and at the outset of the Obama Administration appeared to focus on wealthy, well-connected and largely white offenders. According to the article, Rodgers, a Justice “holdover” from the Bush Administration, will be stepping down shortly, in part as a result of an internal Justice Department inquiry into his ineffectiveness. It can’t be soon enough.
From Anthony Papa of the Drug Policy Alliance:
“This would be a positive step toward righting the wrongs of our broken criminal justice system,” said Anthony Papa, Media Relations Manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, who was granted clemency in New York State in 1997 after serving 12 years under the notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws. “I hope governors with the same power at the state level follow his lead and reunite more families.”
“With half a million people still behind bars on non-violent drug charges, clearly thousands are deserving of a second chance. Congress should act immediately to reduce the draconian federal mandatory minimum sentences that condemn thousands to decades behind bars for non-violent drug offenses,” added Papa.