President Barack Obama on Tuesday reduced or eliminated the sentences for hundreds more non-violent drug offenders.
The move brings Obama well beyond his most recent predecessors, who used their commutation powers more sparingly. He’s now reduced sentences for 1,385 individuals, the vast majority of whom are serving time for crimes related to distribution or production of narcotics.
Many of those whose punishments he’s reduced were incarcerated for crimes involving crack cocaine, which came with mandatory sentences that were longer than those for the powdered version of the drug. The discrepancy – a facet of a decades-long war on drugs – overwhelmingly affected African-Americans.
Obama had hoped for legislation to permanently end the disparities in sentencing laws. While an unlikely group of activists have pushed in Congress for a bill that would alter mandatory minimums and reform the prison system, a rancorous political climate during last year’s presidential campaign prevented progress.
Instead, Obama encouraged Americans serving lengthy terms to apply for clemency, prompting a flood of applications to his Justice Department. A group of legal aid groups established the Clemency Project to help screen applicants and complete the required paperwork.
An onslaught of requests required Obama’s aides to establish a process for vetting applications, which began backing up in the Pardon Attorney’s office.
At the beginning of 2017, 13,568 petitions for clemency were still pending. The Obama administration has received more than 30,000 petitions over eight years.
The power to grant pardons and commutations is written into the US constitution as one of the president’s clearest unilateral prerogatives. With large batches often coming in the final weeks of an administration, an act of clemency cannot be challenged in court or overturned by Congress.
President George W. Bush granted 189 pardons and 11 commutations, including reducing the prison term for I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice and lying to investigators in the probe of the leak of the name of a CIA operative.
President Bill Clinton issued a flurry of pardons on his final day in office, including for financier Marc Rich and the president’s half-brother Roger Clinton. In sum, Clinton ordered 396 pardons and 61 commutations.
No recent commander-in-chief, however, has used the powers as liberally as Obama to enact a criminal justice reform agenda.
Writing in the Harvard Law Review earlier this month, Obama said his push toward eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and offering clemency to non-violent drug offenders was informed by his own history.
“This is an effort that has touched me personally, and not just because I could have been caught up in the system myself had I not gotten some breaks as a kid,” Obama wrote, recalling meetings at the White House with recipients of his clemency grants who had turned their life around.
“By shifting the narrative to the way clemency can be used to correct injustices in the system – and reminding people of the value of second chances – I worked to reinvigorate the clemency power and to set a precedent that will make it easier for future presidents, governors and other public officials to use it for good,” Obama wrote.
While President-elect Donald Trump has yet to detail his planned use of clemency powers, there’s little optimism about criminal justice reform advocates that he’ll continue Obama’s efforts.
Trump ran on a “law and order” platform, though rarely addressed issues of clemency or sentencing on the campaign trail.
“I’m looking at various predictors to try and decide where he might go. He wants to make America safe again. We know based on data that locking up low-level offenders won’t make America safe,” said Jessica Jackson Sloan, the national director and co-founder of #cut50, a group committed to reducing the US prison population by half.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll be surprised,” Sloan said.