If he wins the White House, Democratic presidential candidate and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker wants to make it easier for nonviolent federal drug offenders to seek mercy and get their sentences commuted.
President Barack Obama ended his two terms in office having issued more than 1,700 commutations. But it took Obama a long time to do so. More than 500 of those commutations came during his last week in office.
That's partly because the Obama administration put together a burdensome, bureaucratic process that depended on the cooperation and participation of the Department of Justice while also relying on federal prosecutors themselves to show leniency towards the very people they threw in prison. If not for the Obama administration's guidelines, thousands more could have been released before his term ended if the process had been more efficient.
Today, Booker announced that if he is elected president, he would on his very first day in office launch "the most sweeping clemency initiative in more than 150 years," an approach that could impact more than 17,000 nonviolent federal drug prisoners.
According to a piece he posted at Medium, Booker would target three classes of prisoners: People in federal prison for marijuana-related offenses; people who are serving sentences that would have been reduced under the First Step Act passed by President Donald Trump if the act had been retroactive; and anybody still serving time because of sentencing disparities between crack cocaine and powder cocaine convictions.
Booker intends to revise the Obama administration's process, speeding it up by moving much of the work from the Department of Justice to a new Executive Clemency Panel within the White House. The process would therefore no longer be as dependent on prosecutors filtering cases for review. And this new White House panel would also prioritize reviewing the sentences of people over the age of 50.
The Los Angeles Times notes that clemency experts have long wanted to move the process out of the Justice Department:
Criminal justice reformers have advocated moving the clemency review process out of the Justice Department, arguing that the agency has a conflict of interest in evaluating convictions it was responsible for securing.
"Having the Department of Justice do it is having the fox in charge of the hen house," said JaneAnne Murray, a law professor who runs a clemency project at the University of Minnesota.
"Some real thought went into this," Murray said of Booker's plan.
Read Booker's plan for yourself here.
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.