More of These, Please: Obama's First Commutation

Yesterday President Obama announced his third round of clemency actions, including his first commutation. He shortened the sentence of Eugenia Jennings, an Illinois woman who was convicted in 2001 of selling 13.9 grams of crack to a police informant, from 22 years to 10, allowing her to be released from prison next month. "Eugenia Jennings's 22-year sentence for her nonviolent offense was overkill," said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "Today President Obama rights that wrong and we are grateful to him. We urge the President to continue exercising his clemency power and grant more commutations to the many deserving federal prisoners, like Eugenia, who have paid a hefty price for their mistakes and deserve a second chance." 

Two years ago, Jennings' brother, Cedric Parker, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs about the irrational sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine powder. "Had Eugenia been sentenced for powder cocaine instead of crack cocaine," he noted, "even as a 'career offender,' her sentence would have been less than half the one she received for crack cocaine." Last year Obama, a longtime critic of excessively harsh drug sentences, signed legislation that reduced this penalty gap, but it did not apply retroactively. Hence there are thousands of crack offenders in federal prison who, by Obama's own reckoning, are serving much longer sentences than they deserve. Next month, thanks to his commutation, there will be one fewer.

The five other clemency actions Obama announced yesterday fit the pattern set by his first 17: They are all pardons for people who completed their sentences years ago. One served nine years for transporting stolen property, one got probation for "directing an illegal gambling business," and three are marijuana offenders whose sentences ranged from probation to three years in prison. Without discounting the value of pardons in such cases (especially when the offenders did nothing that should have been illegal in the first place), I think it is fair to say that the petitions of people still languishing in prison are more urgent, especially when they remain there because of sentences that Obama himself has said are unconscionably long. 

While commutations historically are much rarer than pardons, Obama has been unusually slow and stingy in both areas. Even George W. Bush, who had one of the worst clemency records ever, had granted more pardons and commutations at this point in his first administration. And unlike Obama, Bush had not made a point of condemning "long minimum sentences" for drug offenses as "unfair and unjust."

FAMM has more on Jennings' case here. In the October issue of Reason, I cite Obama's clemency record as one of many ways he has disappointed supporters who hoped he would dial back the war on drugs.

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  • Apatheist||

    Fuck the WOD and fuck Obama's continuation of it.

  • ||

    Even when Obama does something good, he can't even do it better than goddamn Bush.

    However, I expect a slew of utterly corrupt pardons/commutations when he leaves office, though. The kind that will make the Marc Rich stuff look tame.

  • ChrisO||

    Tony Rezko, perhaps.

  • Hugh Akston||

    While commutations historically are much rarer than pardons, Obama has been unusually slow and stingy in both areas.

    You can't really blame Obama for not wanting to look soft on people who aren't hurting anyone.

  • ||

    Obama didn't even want to get rid of DADT and let TEH GAY serve in the military openly.

    it took a lawsuit by repubs to do that

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Holder's got to be wondering how much this person contributed to the Obama campaign to earn this so far from the end of Obama's term.

    Joking aside, there have got be so many of these outrageous sentences deserving correction. Why only this? How do they choose?

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    She's from Obama's home state, and her brother was on TV.

    I suppose if I were a slick journalist or talk-show host looking for a way to revive enthusiasm for Obama among his base, I would have a program about the woman's inspiring story and how the benevolent Czar gave this poor woman a second chance, etc.

    Who am I kidding? The personality-cult stuff won't work this time around, they are going to focus on demonizing the Republicans and the Koch brothers rather than focusing of Obama's wonderfulness and healing properties like the last time.

  • PR||

    OK, but how does Obama wrap his head around busting people for weed?

  • pmains||

    I imagine he uses his big, floppy, Ross Perot ears.

  • ||

    obama? the same guy who LAUGHED last time somebody brought up MJ legalization?

    he justifies it because he's a statist.

  • Beloved Rev. Blue Moon||

    Dunphy FT rare W!

  • ||

    well, the rare *acknowledged* win

    i'm winnin' all the time, baybee. the blind just can't see it y0

  • Mo||

    Obama has been unusually slow and stingy in both areas. Even George W. Bush, who had one of the worst clemency records ever, had granted more pardons and commutations at this point in his first administration.

    According to your link, Bush pardoned 7 people in his first 3 years and Obama has pardoned 9 in the first 2.5.

  • ||

    irrational sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine powder.

    Does anyone even remember where this came from? The black 'intelligentsia' demanded it--because crack was messing up the black community.

    There were quasi-civil rights marches and everything--They sang this song 'Take Crack of the Streets'--to the tune of 'We shall Overcome'.

    And now they want it gone because of disparate impact? They DEMANDED disparate impact!

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