President Obama made appropriate use of his clemency powers this week, shortening the prison term of a drug offender who received a sentence that everyone agreed was too long but for which there was no other legal remedy. In 2006 Ceasar Huerta Cantu was sentenced to 17.5 years in federal prison after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy and money laundering charges related to shipping marijuana from Mexico to Virginia. That term was three-and-a-half years longer than it should have been under federal sentencing guidelines because of a mistake in Cantu's presentence report, which erroneously listed his "base offense level" as 36 instead of 34. Cantu's lawyer never noticed the mistake, which Cantu himself discovered in 2012 after his family mailed him a copy of the report. By then he had missed the deadline for asking the courts to shorten his sentence.
Cantu did receive a two-and-half-year sentence reduction in exchange for assistance in an unrelated case. Obama's commutation shortens the amended 180-month sentence to 138 months. As a result, Cantu will go free in May 2015, taking into account time credited for good behavior. "It's hard to imagine that someone in the federal criminal justice system could serve an extra three-plus years in prison because of a typographical error," said White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler in a speech at NYU Law School on Tuesday. Some of us believe that Cantu's sentence, for the "crime" of transporting the produce of an arbitrarily proscribed plant, was actually 15 years too long, but it is probably not realistic to expect the president to correct that sort of injustice.
Still, there is no reason why Obama should be so stingy with commutations, which he so far has issued at a slower rate than all but three other modern presidents: George W. Bush (11 commutations in 96 months), George H.W. Bush (three in 48 months), and Ronald Reagan (13 in 96 months). Obama has now issued 10 commutations in 64 months, which by that measure makes him about 26 percent more merciful than Bush II, 46 percent more merciful than Bush I, and 14 percent more merciful than Reagan. (Obama still lags all three on pardons, which clear people's records, typically after they have completed their sentences.) But surely a man who has repeatedly criticized excessively long prison sentences should aspire to do more than surpass these truly awful commutation records. Obama is still a long way from Nixonian levels of mercy, since Tricky Dick shortened 60 sentences in 67 years—a rate 83 percent higher than Obama's.
A few months ago, Deputy Attorney General James Cole indicated that Obama planned to pick up the pace, which was encouraging. Not so encouraging: Cole, whose department had at that point received about 9,000 commutation petitions since Obama took office, asked for help in finding worthy applicants, which suggested the government's lawyers are either lazy or extremely picky. Cantu's case seems to fit the latter theory. The New York Times reports that "a Justice Department official said the case was so clearly unjust, it moved through the process at unusual speed and was sent less than a month ago to the White House, where Ms. Ruemmler recommended that Mr. Obama approve it."
By the president's own account, there are thousands of other clear injustices that he has the power to remedy. He could start with all of the crack offenders sentenced under pre-2010 rules that almost everyone now agrees were unreasonably harsh. The Smarter Sentencing Act would make the shorter crack sentences enacted in 2010 retroactive. But if Congress fails to approve that bill, Obama still has the authority to act on his own, which would be consistent with the statements he and his underlings have made regarding our excessively punitive criminal justice system.
"The president believes that one important purpose [of clemency] can be to help correct the effects of outdated and overly harsh sentences that Congress and the American people have since recognized are no longer in the best interests of justice," Ruemmler said in her NYU speech. "This effort also reflects the reality that our overburdened federal prison population includes many low-level, nonviolent offenders without significant criminal histories." Probably more than 10. The president's pitiful performance so far falls far short of these aspirations.