'Tis the Season for Clemency


Today President Bush announced 19 pardons and one commutation, the latter for Reed Prior, a man serving a life sentence for selling methamphetamine. Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), which has championed Prior's case, welcomed the president's decision:

Since going to prison in 1996, Reed has overcome his addiction and begun tutoring other inmates and spreading the message to young people that drugs are destructive. Reed has extensive support from the community, including the judge who sentenced him.

FAMM President Julie Stewart adds:

There are thousands of individuals like Reed Prior still serving excessive mandatory prison terms for nonviolent offenses.  We hope the president will grant more clemencies to these worthy applicants before the end of his term.

Of course, clemencies only underscore the larger problem—the systemic injustice caused by mandatory minimum sentences that fill the prisons with low-level drug offenders in the first place.  Mandatory minimum drug sentences are responsible for a federal prison population of over 200,000 people. They cost taxpayers a fortune, and they do little to reduce drug use.  We hope the next Congress will repeal these ineffective laws so that courts can once again tailor sentences to fit the individual's role in the offense. 

Last week Kemba Smith, a first-time offender who went to prison in 1994 because her boyfriend was a crack dealer and would have remained there until 2016 had Bill Clinton not commuted her sentence, explained "the wisdom of pardons" in USA Today. She urged Bush, who before he took office expressed support for eliminating the unjust sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine powder, to use his clemency power "with thoughtful deliberation," noting that "clemency is sometimes the only possible response to unfair and excessive penalties."

According to USA Today, today's batch of clemency actions brings Bush's total to 191 pardons and nine commutations—"fewer than half as many as Presidents Clinton or Reagan issued during their two terms." Last year I urged Bush to catch up. Last month Radley Balko urged Barack Obama not to take Bush as his model of mercy.