'Dozens' of Commutations Are Good; 'Thousands' Would Be Better

If correcting clear injustices is the aim, Obama can do a lot more.



President Obama, who during his first term commuted exactly one sentence, has picked up the pace recently, granting early releases to a total of 43 prisoners so far. Now The New York Times reports that "sometime in the next few weeks," Obama plans to grant commutations to "dozens of federal prisoners locked up on nonviolent drug offenses." The Times says his total at that point "may surpass 80." If so, Obama's commutation record, which was once stingier than any modern president's, will exceed that of every president since Lyndon Johnson. But it will still pale beside the "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of commutations predicted by an unnamed "senior administration official" last year.

Obama's total will look even smaller as a share of the 17,000 or so commutation petitions the Justice Department has received since 2009. Or the 30,000 prisoners who contacted the Clemency Project—a joint effort by the American Bar Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums—after the DOJ signaled a new openness to commutation petitions in April 2014.

The DOJ said it would give special attention to petitions from "non-violent, low-level offenders" who have served at least 10 years of a sentence that would have been shorter under current law, "do not have a significant criminal history," have "demonstrated good conduct in prison," and have no "significant ties to large-scale criminal organizations, gangs or cartels." The Times says the Clemency Project, assisted by "more than 50 law firms, more than 20 law schools and more than 1,500 lawyers," has been sifting through the applicants, looking for prisoners who meet the DOJ's criteria. "The process is burdensome as the volunteer lawyers try to dig out documents from more than a decade ago," the Times reports. So far they have "screened out 13,000 inmates who did not meet the guidelines and sent just over 50 applications to the Justice Department."

Those details raise a couple of important questions: Why is the DOJ relying on volunteers to do its work, and why is it being so picky? As the huge backlog of petitions indicates, the Office of the Pardon Attorney has never had the will or the resources to review more than a small share of the commutation applications it receives, especially if the aim is to avoid the political embarrassment of freeing prisoners who seem unsympathetic on closer examination or commit new crimes after they are released. But the task would be much easier if the aim were simpler—say, freeing people who are serving sentences longer than the ones currently considered appropriate for the offenses they committed.

An estimated 8,800 prisoners, for example, could benefit from retroactive application of the shorter crack sentences that Congress approved in 2010. They are serving terms that pretty much everyone, including the president, now considers unjust. That should be reason enough to grant them clemency, regardless of whether they meet the other DOJ criteria. Other categories—nonviolent offenders serving life sentences, for instance, or prisoners sentenced to decades behind bars based on weapons they never brandished, let alone fired—are not as big but likewise seem like obvious candidates for commutation without the need for a detailed, case-by-case examinations of their lives. By focusing on clear injustices like these, Obama could free many more people who do not belong in prison. Isn't that the point?

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  1. …if the aim is to avoid the political embarrassment of freeing prisoners who seem unsympathetic on closer examination or commit new crimes after they are released.

    There’s very little political backlash from or danger in releasing no one. The cynic in me tells me the ones they do look at have some secret benefactor who the president wants to keep happy.

    1. The DOJ has little time to deal with such criminals, because massive efforts have had to be invested in combating the far more serious problem posed by Internet trolls and whistle-blowers whose insidious activities have become perpetually embarrassing to the reputations of many well-connected members of the community. Certain forms of satire, especially, must be suppressed if our great national system of ordered liberty is to survive, and this demands a large portion of the Department’s resources. Prosecutors in New York have made some progress in stamping out forms of speech that we really don’t like, as documented at:

      but far more needs to be done, and we can hardly ask the Department to distract itself from the fight by allowing thousands of hardened thugs out on the street in the limper, kinder, gentrified America we are building in New York and other cities around the country.

  2. Agree, agree, agree. But if just one of those 8800 carjacks a single mom some day, the news that one of “Obama’s ex-cons” is a repeat offender will be plastered in every paper and screamed from every network. This is what they fear.

    1. Why? Because it would screw up O’s third term election campaign?

    2. And Obama has shown such great concern over what the country thinks about anything. Obama just doesn’t care. It doesn’t affect him that people are unjustly locked in prison so he sees no reason to do anything.,

      1. I agree completely (see my comment below)

  3. He could have been my son…

  4. “Obama could free many more people who do not belong in prison. Isn’t that the point?”

    No. The point is avoiding the scar on Obama’s legacy that would have been left if he had retained his placement in the top 5 presidents with least commutations.

    Obama does not give a shit about the people who have been decimated by the slow-motion holocaust that is US law enforcement: poor people, mentally ill people and black people. Thats right I said it. The drug war has destroyed three generations of black families by stealing fathers from their children. Obama has done nothing but speed up the process. His crack sentencing reforms are a joke, and as this article makes clear he doesnt even want those people released.

    Voters should wake the hell up and learn from Obamas betrayal of the black electorate: identity politics are poison. First we need our prisoners released and the murder of our kids by police needs to stop.

    1. He only cared about being re-elected, hence only 1 commutation in the first term. Now he will likely pay off some ‘debts’ to various constituencies and co-conspirators in an effort to gain a legacy.

      Lowest of the low is the prez.

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  6. Since Obama is a big fan of The Wire:
    he obviously understands the reasons why The Land of the Free is the world’s top incarcerating nation. These few dozen commutations are symbolically important, but, given the pace of marijuana decrim in the states, not very impressive. No leadership, no courage.

  7. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do…… ??????

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