As J.D. Tuccille noted earlier this afternoon, President Obama issued eight commutations today, which is eight times the number he issued in the first 58 months of his administration. The best-known prisoner who will be freed as a result of today's clemency actions is Clarence Aaron, who was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences in 1993 for his role in arranging a cocaine deal. Aaron's case received a lot of attention recently thanks to reporting by ProPublica's Dafna Linzer, who revealed that his clemency petition probably would have been granted by George W. Bush if the Office of the Pardon Attorney had not omitted important information from its evaluation.
Another commutation beneficiary, Stephanie George, received a life sentence in 1997 for letting her boyfriend stash his crack at her house. New York Times reporter John Tierney highlighted her case in a front-page story last December. Thanks to Obama's commutations, Aaron and George will both be released next April instead of spending the rest of their lives behind bars.
All of the prisoners whose sentences Obama has shortened (including Eugenia Jennings, whose petition was granted in 2011) were convicted of crack offenses prior to passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, the 2010 law that reduced penalties for possessing and distributing the smoked form of cocaine. That law, which passed Congress almost unanimously, reflected a consensus that the old penalties were inappropriately harsh, but it did not apply retroactively. It should therefore be a no-brainer to shorten the prison terms of crack offenders sentenced under the old rules, which virtually everyone now agrees were unjust. Here is how Obama put it today:
This law began to right a decades-old injustice, but for thousands of inmates, it came too late. If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society. Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.
Families Against Mandatory Minimums estimates that 8,800 federal crack offenders are serving prison terms that could be shorter if they had been sentenced under current law. As of today, Obama has used his clemency power to help 0.1 percent of them.
Obama nevertheless deserves credit for acting, albeit belatedly and timidly, on his avowed belief that thousands of people in federal prison do not belong there. In addition to issuing these commutations, he has endorsed the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill co-sponsored by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) that would allow some crack offenders convicted before 2009 to seek shorter sentences. But as Obama demonstrated today, he does not have to wait for congressional action. It is completely within his power to free any federal prisoner whose sentence he deems unjust. If he exercises that power a little more, he will not be in danger of going down in history as the least merciful president ever.
Today's clemency actions put Obama's total at nine commutations and 52 pardons over 59 months, within striking distance (assuming he picks up the pace) of George W. Bush, who managed just 11 commutations and 189 pardons during his 96 months in office. But Obama still has a lot of work to do before can equal that notorious softie Richard Nixon, who issued 863 pardons and 60 commutations over 67 months.