Clemency

Obama Steps Up Commutations, Feeding Drug War Prisoners' Hopes

The president shortens 22 sentences, doubling his total in a single day.

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This week President Obama shortened the sentences of 22 drug offenders, doubling his commutation total in a single day. In my latest Forbes column, I welcome the commutations as evidence that Obama's new openness to clemency petitions is starting to have real results:

On October 31, 1996, the Sanilac County Sheriff's Office, which serves a largely rural area in Michigan's thumb, got a call from a local resident who said he was concerned about his neighbor, Darrell Hayden. No one had heard from Hayden for several days, the man said, and his horses were wandering down Argyle Road. The deputies who went to check on Hayden's welfare got no response when they knocked on the door of his trailer, so they let themselves in and wandered around. They did not find Hayden, but they did find a plastic bag of marijuana on a dresser in his bedroom. That discovery led to a search warrant, which revealed a grow operation involving thousands of cannabis plants, mixed in with the corn.

Hayden, a Kentucky-born Vietnam veteran with nine siblings, four children, and several grandchildren, had been busted for growing pot before. The first time, he got 60 days in the county jail. The second time, he served five months. This time he received a life sentence, the mandatory minimum that federal law prescribes for someone with two prior convictions who grows 1,000 or more marijuana plants. "He's seen murderers and bank robbers come and go while he's been in prison," his daughter, Lisa Hayden, told a Kentucky newspaper last year. "Something's really wrong with that."

Evidently President Obama agreed. Hayden was one of 22 drug offenders whose sentences Obama commuted on Tuesday. Now 65, he has spent 16 years in federal prison for managing that marijuana farm in Michigan. But instead of dying behind bars, he is scheduled to be released in July, along with seven other drug war prisoners serving life sentences for offenses involving cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin.

Obama's latest batch of commutations, which doubled his total in a single day, suggests that the president, whose clemency record during his first term was remarkably stingy, is beginning to make up for lost time. Last year the Justice Department signaled a new openness to clemency petitions, laying out criteria for the sort of applications the president wanted to see. An unnamed "senior administration official" told Yaho News the new guidelines could result in commutations for "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of federal prisoners by the end of Obama's second term. The president will have to pick up the pace to reach that goal. But his avowed interest in ameliorating the egregious injustices inflicted by federal drug laws seems to be more than rhetorical.

Read the whole thing.

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  1. Last year the Justice Department signaled a new openness to clemency petitions, laying out criteria for the sort of applications the president wanted to see.

    And exactly what might these criteria be? Registered Democrat and what else?

  2. A step in the right direction, but too little far too late in my opinion.

    Obama is worried about his legacy. In that he’s tried several initiatives involving use of executive powers that are questionable. But if he wanted to have something in his legacy then he should turn to an executive power that is uncontroversially broad and explicitly granted to him: the pardon power. If he were to break records in pardoning thousands of, say, non-violent drug offenders, then he’d have a real legacy. Sure, conservatives would holler that he’s being soft on criminals and drugs and probably some would say some racial nonsense (like that he is going to make black people immune to criminal prosecution [Kris Kobach]), but those types are going to holler about Obama whatever he does. He might as well do some good for a change while they holler.

    1. If he were to break records in pardoning thousands of, say, non-violent drug offenders, then he’d have a real legacy.

      Meh. People should be focusing on the larger issues that affect our country ? like climate change and the economy.

      1. Or gay cakes and pizzas.

        1. Exactly. All the sentences about that stuff should definitely be commuted.

          1. Rich,

            I thought incomplete sentences were not good and also.

            1. Charles,

              to exchange for another or for something else; give and take reciprocally; interchange.

              As in “God is not real; your hatred is” is commuted to “Let’s all share a veggie pizza!”

              1. Aha!

    2. Still, Bo, it’s a step in the right direction … which is rather novel for Obama.

      The history of the Obama Administration in its first six years is one of finding novel ways to go in the wrong direction.

  3. “This week President Obama shortened the sentences of 22 drug offenders, doubling his commutation total in a single day.”

    I think President Obama should continue this doubling every day until all non-violent “drug offenders” are freed.

    1. Sounds good.

      However, “shortened the sentences” could mean “lopped a whopping day off each sentence”.

      Pardon my cynicism.

  4. I don’t imagine it ever happening, but I wonder if it is possible legally for a president to do a blanket commutation and release all prisoners convicted only of victimless drug crimes. Or do they have to be for specific individuals?

    1. Zeb,

      My impression is that he would have to go through them name by name, but that I got from Larken Rose’s “The Iron Web” (which seemed to have been written after more than a little research).

    2. he already blanket pardoned illegals sooooo my guess is yes?

  5. I wouldn’t think you’d have to do it by name. Carter pardoned a boatload of draft-dodgers, which I assume (but haven’t checked) was a blanket pardon.

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