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.