Freeing People Who Don't Belong in Prison Is Praiseworthy, No Matter Trump's Motives

The president's final batch of clemency actions includes commutations for dozens of nonviolent drug offenders.


On his way out the door this morning, President Donald Trump approved 143 clemency petitions, including commutations for dozens of nonviolent offenders, most of whom were convicted of violating federal drug laws. The 70 people who were granted commutations include at least 10 who received life sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Among them: Michael Pelletier, who went to prison in 2007 for importing marijuana; Craig Cesal, a first-time offender who was imprisoned in 2003 for repairing trucks that were used to distribute marijuana; and Darrell Frazier, who was sentenced in 1991 for his role in a cocaine trafficking operation.

Trump's final batch of pardons and commutations, like the previous rounds, is apt to be criticized on the grounds that he chose most of the recipients for personal or political reasons. After Trump announced 46 pardons and commutations before Christmas, Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith reported that 85 of the 94 clemency recipients up to that point had "a personal or political connection to Trump." The New York Times says Trump has "made clear his willingness to use his clemency power on behalf of allies, supporters, people he perceives as victims of prosecutorial overreach and people who forge connections to him and his team." Leaving aside Trump's blatantly self-interested mercy for cronies such as Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Steve Bannon (who was pardoned today), I think this sort of criticism is misplaced for several reasons.

First, the focus on Trump's motivation obscures the crucial question of whether the recipients of commutations received sentences that were grossly disproportionate in light of the conduct that sent them to prison. Whether Lavonne Roach deserved 30 years behind bars for participating in her boyfriend's methamphetamine operation, for example, has nothing to do with how she came to the president's attention or why he decided to commute her sentence. "I am grateful to President Trump, Jared Kushner, and Ivanka Trump for their understanding that even in these last moments, how important it was to still use the executive power to bring people home," Topeka K. Sam, executive director of The Ladies of Hope Ministries, said in a press release. "When you look at a woman like Lavonne Roach—who, after 23 years of incarceration, is now reunited with her children—that's nothing short of a miracle for a mother."

Second, Trump seems to have been genuinely moved by examples of unjust drug sentences. That impulse is praiseworthy, even when it is encouraged by celebrities such as Kim Kardashian West, who championed the cause of Alice Marie Johnson, the first drug offender to benefit from a Trump commutation. Johnson was a first-time offender who received a life sentence in 1996 for participating in a cocaine trafficking operation. After Trump commuted her sentence in 2018, he introduced her during his 2019 State of the Union address. She was featured in a 2020 campaign ad and spoke at the Republican National Convention last summer, after which she received a pardon in addition to her commutation.

Third, Trump's political motive for contrasting his own record on criminal justice with Joe Biden's long history as a fierce drug warrior does not negate his accomplishments in that area. Even if Trump commuted sentences and supported the FIRST STEP Act based largely on the calculation that doing so would increase his chances of re-election, those actions freed people who did not belong behind bars—in the latter case, thousands of them.

Fourth, the argument that it's unseemly for Trump to commute sentences in response to appeals from people he knows and trusts can extend to absurd lengths. Thanks to Kardashian West, Trump knows Johnson. Thanks to Johnson, who has tirelessly sought clemency for other nonviolent offenders, Trump learned about many of the people whose sentences he later commuted. Are all of those cases thereby tainted?

Fifth, Trump's arbitrariness has largely replaced the arbitrariness of recommendations from the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney, which he circumvented in making most of his clemency decisions. Johnson never understood why she was not one of the 1,715 federal prisoners who received commutations from Barack Obama, who shortened far more sentences than any other president in U.S. history. It is hard to come up with a rational explanation for leaving someone like Johnson out. More generally, the Justice Department's clemency review process has long been plagued by understaffing, backlogs, delays, and inscrutable standards. I'm not sure why Trump's alleged capriciousness is worse.

It was never likely that Trump's commutation total would come near Obama's, which surpassed those of his 13 most recent predecessors combined. But Trump did end up issuing nearly 100 times as many commutations as Obama did in his first term (just one), and his record compares quite favorably to those of George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and Richard Nixon.

Johnson understands that when it comes to winning freedom for people serving draconian sentences, what matters is getting results. "I was once told that the only way I would ever be reunited with my family would be as a corpse," she said at the Republican convention. "But by the grace of God and the compassion of President Donald John Trump, I stand before you tonight, and I assure you I'm not a ghost. I am alive. I am well. And most importantly, I am free….When President Trump heard about me, about the injustice of my story, he saw me as a person. He had compassion, and he acted….There are thousands of people just like me who deserve the opportunity to come home."

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  1. I’m pretty conflicted over the issue of pardons in general.

    On the one hand, shouldn’t the courts where the evidence is presented, where the defendant defends his case, and where the jury calmly deliberates be the true arbiter of a criminal sentence, and not some elected official (president or governor) who only had a cursory look at the case?

    On the other, some of these punishments clearly don’t fit the crime. I mean, getting a LIFE SENTENCE for importing marijuana or getting involved in repairing trucks used for marijuana is just insane. I’ve cases of second-degree murder where the guy got out after 4 years, which is almost equally insane. I don’t know what’s going on in the heads of some of these judges when they get to decide the length of the sentence. Unless there are more elements to those crimes than we know?

    1. Pardons certainly seem worse than the ideal scenarios you laid out, with careful attention to the case by jury and judge, and with the judge empowered enough – and willing and capable enough – to impose just the right sentence.

      Generally, of course, things fall short of this ideal. There are cases of judges “forced” to impose what they deem excessive sentences (I put “forced” in quotes because the judge could always resign rather than impose an unjust sentence). Juries aren’t supposed to know the possible sentences which are attached to their guilty verdicts – they’re forbidden from considering the sentencing consequences of their verdicts. Sometimes there isn’t a jury at all, but a plea-bargain leveraged from overcharging and very high statutory penalties. And so on.

      There’s also the consideration that a person can genuinely reform in prison – which the sentencing court naturally wouldn’t be able to predict one way or the other.

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  2. Personally, I applaud many of the pardons and commutations, but as almost always, the president waited too long. If the president discovers someone has been unjustly imprisoned, why should that person remain unjustly imprisoned another year or even another day? Should we all, or only the president, tolerate injustice, but only until the president leaves office? If President Trump had been re-elected, those rightly freed most likely would be wrongly waiting in prison another four years.

    The propriety of some of Trump’s acts of clemency may be debatable, but pardoning Charles Kushner was a disgrace.

    1. +100

  3. Wait, didn’t Reason write an article a month or two ago attacking Trump for his lack of pardons, even though as most commenters pointed out, most presidents did the bulk in their last days? (As Trump did)

    1. It was most likely sullum.

  4. OK but why aren’t these people advocating ending the drug war? It’s great to correct injustice, but better to prevent it.

    1. I agree! Makes me wonder if these last pardons for drug offenses were genuinely from the heart or was Trump just given a list of pardons to sign, the world may never know.

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  5. It’s medieval.

    Why is it only the loser outgoing president who waves his hand magically for his allies?

    1. Maybe because the previous loser outgoing president weaponized the police powers of government to spy on his opponent. Having them use fake evidence, fake investigations, and lies to FISA courts to try to prosecute his enemies for of all things; “lying to investigators” and other bullshit process crimes.

      1. It’s a “one off” then.

  6. Jesus, it’s obvious that Trump is only pardoning these people so that he can build an army of hardened criminals who personally owe him a favor so that when he makes his move to overthrow the government he’s not relying strictly on Nazis and the KKK and Proud Boys and Juggalos but actually has some battle-tested warriors on his side. It’s so obvious – we all know Trump never does anything just because he believes it’s the right thing to do, he’s always playing some kind of angle. He deserves no praise whatsoever, no matter how begrudging and back-handed, for what he’s doing.

    1. I heard he was gathering up all of the superpredators for his army

  7. As ‘old grandpa dad” (the welch guy) said on yesterday’s podcast, presidential pardons should be a weekly thing.

    The pardons of these dozens of drug people is unequivocally great!

    I was hoping for the snowden guy, the wiki guy, and the silk guy. He didn’t do any of those. That doesn’t take away from the ones he did do. And it doesn’t matter what sort of celebrity influence peddling (if any) or cash payoffs to seedy lawyers took place in order to make it all happen.

  8. Kudo’s to Trump for pardoning non-violent inmates. Jacob is correct that Trump should not be vilified for pardoning these non-violent inmates.

    Far too often Trump has been vilified regardless of his stance, if people agree with the action then they attack his motives instead. Trump was place in a position where no matter what position he took he was simply evil.

    Personally, I never liked Trump and didn’t vote for him. I do however believe that Trump isn’t the worse President we have had. Absent the daily biased onslaught of attacks by a coordinated Corporate Media and Democrat party machine, the last 4 years would have been relatively normal.

    There have been some changes on the surface, but there really hasn’t been any deep changes. The coordinated Corporate Media and Democrat party machine has been hyperbolic and sowing and driving a division in the country because of ratings and the Democrat party needs a perpetual victim class to maintain power.

    Not that the Republican party is any better, but currently the tentacles of the LEFT far out reaches the RIGHT. It’s sad that LIBERALS (in the classical Liberal meaning) have been diminished to the point that neither party will tolerate them.

    The result is two parties that are comprised of hardcore STATISTS. It’s time for viable third parties to oppose the duopoly. I’m more inclined to support the Libertarian party, but this applies to growing the Green party as well.

    1. Had me until the end. Green and freedom do not mix. All the Greens throughout Europe drank the Marxist kool aid harder than their Socialist counterparts. They’re basically just Socialists who focus on the environment.

      1. Watermelons, the lot.

  9. “Leaving aside Trump’s blatantly self-interested mercy for cronies such as Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Steve Bannon (who was pardoned today), I think this sort of criticism is misplaced for several reasons.”

    Except they were all set up and framed by corrupt pro Clinton anti Trump DOJ and FBI officials (Comey, Struck, Page, etc.).

    1. Hey Bill, how is the weather today in fantasy land?

      I recommend checking yourself into a mental institution sooner than later so you can join us back here in reality at some point.

      1. Too lazy (or incompetent) to make up your own shtick, you have to steal mine.

      2. What shitlunches is trying to say is that it was ok when Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, but Trump is a big ickypuss.

        1. Pretty much.

      3. I recommend stuffing your TDS up your ass so your head has some company.

  10. He left out the big three everyone was hoping he would pardon, but he made sure to pardon all his cronies. Way to send a message to your supposed enemy, the deep state.

  11. What, he didn’t pardon any Senate bombers, shooters of House members, or cop-killing attempted presidential assassins? No wonder this man wasn’t beloved by the media.

  12. I don’t think people took issue with non-violent drug offenders and bs- it was the kid killing mercenaries, personal friends, and the accusations that he sold the pardons that people have issue with. Like any honest American should have issues with.

    At this point just remove pardon power entirely. After Trump and that shithead Bevin in KY, it clearly has too much power to be good.

    1. Do you remember the hoopla when Clinton pardoned Marc Rich? Neither do I.

      1. Yes, I do remember a hoopla when Clinton pardoned Marc Rich.

        The NY Times alone published a number of critical comments including, but not limited to:

        Metro Matters; Evil or Not, Money Roots Into Politics
        January 22, 2001

        Prosecutors Not Consulted By Clinton On a Pardon January 23, 2001

        Influential Backers Helped Commodities Trader Win Pardon January 24, 2001

        An Indefensible Pardon (NYT Editorial) January 24, 2001

        Donors and the Rich Pardon
        March 3, 2001

        February 24, 2001 Motive Is Everything in the Marc Rich Pardon

        March 24, 2001 Supporter Of Pardon For Fugitive Has Regrets

        So, what is your point. The Marc Rich pardon is a continuing stain on Bill Clinton’s record and several of Trump’s are also indefensible.

        I support the pardons of low-level drug offenders but would note that there are thousands of people deserving pardons in that category. Obama pardoned about 1,700 of them in his second term but there are still many more waiting.

        1. But Clinton has the excuse that his pardons were just business transactions.

    2. “…Like any honest American should have issues with…”

      As if a steaming pile of lefty shit like you would have any idea what honest people think.

  13. Not to worry. Good ol’ ’94 crime bill’ Joe and ‘lock ’em up’ Harris will have them back in prison in no time.

  14. Apparently the cure for TDS kicked in a day early….. 🙂

  15. I’m pretty conflicted over the issue of pardons in general.

    1. “I’m pretty conflicted over the issue of pardons in general.”

      Erring on the side of freedom would seem like a libertarian no-brainer especially when no violence is involved. My only reservation would be pardons for corrupt agents of the state like Kwafume Kilpatrick.

  16. No doubt Trump deserves praise this time around. I just can’t help but wonder how his presidency could have been productive if not for his douchebaggery. Best libertarian president ever? Not even close! But like the saying goes, ‘a day late and a dollar short’.

    1. “…Best libertarian president ever? Not even close!..”

      Claim by lefty shit; no evidence, as always.

    2. I just can’t help but wonder how his presidency could have been productive if not for his douchebaggery.

      So less douchebaggy, more libertarian, and more productive like Bush or less douchebaggy, more libertarian, and more productive like Obama?

      Your priorities seem to be (in order of preference): 1. Not a douchebag, 2. Productive, 3. Libertarian and that’s pretty fucked up.

  17. It appears that many/most folks who were pardoned by Trump had been arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated for violating disastrous, puritanical and nonlibertarian War on Drugs laws that Joe Biden championed as a Senator.

    But of course, unReason won’t reveal those facts since they campaigned for Biden by lying about Trump.

  18. Joe Biden’s Dark Winter of more lies about covid, lockdowns, mask mandates, doom, gloom and despair (that relies upon the continued demonization of and lying about Trump’s many achievements) is now descending upon America.

    Left wing propagandists haven’t been this excited since the overthrow of Russian Czar more than a century ago.

  19. What about Joe Exotic?

  20. As I post this right now, it is Ring Out The Old Hell and Ring In The Fresh Hell!

    Something I’ve wondered abou Executive Pardon since I first learned of it:

    Could a hypothetical Libertarian President or Governor do a mass pardon of all people within his/her/its jurisdiction convicted of all “victimless crimes?”

    Better still, couud a hypothetical Libertarian President or Governor pre-emptively pardon all persons who may be convicted of “victimless crimes” in the future? If there can be a Bureau of Pre-Crime, can there be an Executive Pre-Pardon?

    Just rough-drafting a ibertarian “I Have A Dream” speech. Any thoughts?

    1. Correction on the last line, Libertarian.

      An “Ibertarian” would be someone supporting secession for Iberia.

      And a “New Ibertarian” would be someone who supports secession for New Iberia and Tobasco Sauce as legal tender.

  21. Trump should have pardoned someone every day from the Democratic National Convention to election day – always emphasizing that this was someone sentenced excessively under laws Biden sponsored, and similar to the California laws repeatedly misused by Harris.

    1. a FINE idea. trump is not nearly as smart as he, and many people i know, thinks he is. he got bested by a hack lifer with a resume of fodder for EASY kills

    2. That would have been good, though an Inauguration Day 2016 bulk pardon would have been best. “Justice delayed is Justice Denied” and all that.

      Testimonies from the pardoned could have been incorporated into Election ads for 2020 as well. Then, that could have cinched the deal for another term.

      All of this for a hypothetical Libertarian President, natch.

  22. To all those wondering “Why hasn’t Trump pardoned more people, more often?” I ask what, to me, is a rather obvious question/counterargument “Did you support or agree with any of Trump’s impeachments?”

    If telling your followers to walk over to the capitol and peacefully protest is instigating an insurrection, I can only imagine that pardoning Snowden or Assange means you are irrefutably a Russian puppet, guilty of treason.

  23. Trump pardoned Aviem Sella and that’s just despicable. Also despicable, everyone supporting that pardon. If you aren’t familiar with the Jonathan Pollard case, you should be. It was the greatest betrayal of the United States in history.

  24. pardons of these dozens of drug people is unequivocally Great

    1. Except that these dozens are a tiny fraction of the people in jail for decades for low-level federal drug offenses.
      What about those left behind?

  25. no SNOWDEN
    no ASSANGE

    maybe biden will sack up and drain the jails (or should we call them homosexual rape camps?)

    1. Biden prefers to drain his sack into children. His crackhead son Hunter is carrying on the family tradition, with his underage niece.

  26. You live in a country that is so free that it has people in prison that don’t belong there. Nice.

    1. Sad, but true, which is why Executive Pardon is a check against Legislative, Judicial, and Administrative tyranny. And it beats all the risk and trouble of having to do a prison break and hide fugitives. (Whatever you do, don’t do that.)

  27. This is insane bullshit. None of Obama’s pardons and commutations were to reward political allies, or of people who could testify against in pending criminal cases. Almost all of Trump’s pardons and commutation were for such obvious motives. This writer is a Trump supporter for sure, like so many “Libertarians”.

    1. I disagree 100%. The author is not a Trump supporter just because he points out a few good things the former President has done. I myself have been consistently anti Trump, mainly because I hate how much he lies, and his narcissism, and how he is so damn obviously corrupt in half a dozen ways although the Congress turned a blind eye till the redneck riots. Does not mean I can’t be happy when he did things I like, and I am always for the pardon power, even though it is inevitable that people will use it pardon cronies. That is why electing a person with actual morals and character is critical, and why Trump was a terrible choice for President, though he did support many libertarian ideas, like less regulation. The few people he did pardon who were unjustly imprisoned are no doubt delighted. Too many waste away in federal pardons still. I do believe Trump was touched by the plight of many of these people, which is amazing since I think he cares usually very little for others, and did pardon at least a few who deserved it. I hope President Biden pardons even more, but while I think he is a man of good character, he is at heart, a rule follower. As such, I am not sure how many people he will pardon during, and at the end of his 4 years. I hope I am mistaken, and that he pardons a lot.

  28. There are over 10,000 people who are serving long sentences for low level drug offenses. The sentences for these crimes have been shortened (and Trump and others claim credit for that) but the change was not retroactive so those sentenced in the 90s and early 2000s are still in jail. Obama pardoned over 1,700 people in this category. I would like to have seen Trump exceed that number and hope that Biden does (quickly, no reason to wait until the end of his term). Would be a mark of atonement for Biden’s involvement in writing the bill in the first place.

  29. No Matter Trump’s Motives

    Jacob Sullum, are you mentally retarded like your new president?

  30. No mention of Kwame Kilpatrick here? That was a pure asshole move by Trump, made either to stick it to Michigan’s governor, or to reward a couple of large donations made to his PAC (or both). Makes Mark Rich’s pardon look positively tame.

  31. OK, so will the Brady Campaign or Moms Demand Action weigh in on this one? Lil Wayne aka Dwayne Carter was pardoned by Trump. His reason for being in federal prison was that he was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Here is a CNN source:

    So riddle me this. He was convicted initially of illegally possessing a firearm under New York’s draconian and unconstitutional firearms laws. You know, black man with a gun. But if you look at US D of J crime statistics you find that most of our violent crimes are committed by……………..drum roll…………… men with guns. Meanwhile people are being racked up by silly prohibitions that have little or nothing to do with public safety. I guess we need a whole pile of new anti-gun and anti self defense laws to sort this mess out.

  32. I assume POTUS pardons based on his benefit, nothing else. Isn’t that what most politicians do?
    If pardons were based on reason, rights, justice, then all non-violent, (non-fraud) cases would be pardoned. Of course, that would correct the unjust violation of rights that many laws and “the law” in general is guilty of. The concept of “law” is based on the initiation of violence by the majority through their reps, NOT reason or rights. The assumption is this serves the “common good”. Why? That is not shown thru argument. Why? Law is not about reason, only force. For example, where injustice is clearly present and can’t be justified after all the facts, the final statement by the enforcers is: “The law is the law”, meaning “ok, we admit we can’t justify our action but we don’t have to because we use violence, not reason”. Doesn’t that sum up the worldwide political paradigm?

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