War on Drugs

Thousands Beg President Joe Biden for Mercy as He Pardons a Couple of Turkeys

The annual photo op takes on cruel undertones as drug offenders continue to suffer under harsh federal prison sentences.

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On Friday, President Joe Biden continued the meaningless tradition of "pardoning" two turkeys prior to Thanksgiving. The two birds, named Peanut Butter and Jelly, were presented before Biden, who said "instead of getting basted, these two turkeys are getting boosted."

At The New York Times, Katie Rogers notes that there was no talk of Biden's domestic agenda, though that apparently wasn't for lack of trying by reporters at the event. Steven Nelson of the New York Post asked the president if he would be pardoning any actual people. Biden played it off as a joke, asking Nelson if he needed one. Nelson subsequently asked the same question of White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who essentially shrugged it off: She had no updates about any potential mercy for actual human beings.

Every year, the turkey pardon highlights the absurd gap between presidential performance and actual policy. Despite campaign trail promises that he would roll back some of the harsh laws he was responsible for helping pass in the first place, Biden has done little in this arena during his first year as president. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.), Ed Markey (D–Mass.), and Jeff Merkley (D–Ore.) sent a letter to Biden earlier in November asking him to use executive authority to mass pardon any federal prisoners with non-violent marijuana convictions, but thus far nothing has come of it.

And that's not the only looming problem that needs Biden's attention. The CARES Act, the COVID-19 economic stimulus legislation signed into law last year under President Donald Trump, authorized the temporary emergency home release of thousands of federal inmates as a way of attempting to slow the spread of the pandemic in prisons.

But when the federal crisis response to the pandemic eventually ends in some unspecified future date, so does the authority to keep these people out of prison, even if they've fully complied with the terms of their releases. Sentencing reform groups like FAMM have attempted to put political pressure on Biden to use his pardoning power to keep some 4,000 prisoners from being forced to return to their cells. FAMM, Color of Change, Dream Corps, Justice Action Network, and other groups have urged people to come to a D.C. rally this afternoon to tell Biden to "pardon people not turkeys."

In September, the Biden administration launched a system to encourage certain prisoners released under the CARES Act to submit applications for commutation. But Biden's potential mercy (should it actually come) is deliberately narrow in this formulation: He's only offering commutations to those in prison for drug offenses who have less than four years left on their sentences.

Thanks to some absurdly harsh federal sentences for drug offenses, that limit leaves out many people who could be helped. In a Medium post about the frustration that federal inmates and their families feel about this performative turkey-pardoning, Ann Espuelas, FAMM's director of family outreach and storytelling, details just who the administration will be leaving out:

The Biden administration has said that they are considering clemency for many of the people under the OLC memo cloud, but the criteria they have announced is quite narrow and will exclude many, including Antwan Jones. He has a great job and is focused on successful reentry. But Antwan worries deeply about the impact being sent back to prison would have on his fragile but improving relationship with his kids. "They were 8 and 2 when I went in. Losing them a second time would seal the deal on any hopes of my fatherhood being a positive experience for them. I need to be there for them."

"The Biden administration's proposal for who gets clemency and who doesn't, based on arbitrary criteria, has nothing to do with public safety," writes Espuelas. These prisoners "were already painstakingly vetted, then deemed the lowest of low-risk by Attorney General [William] Barr."

Espuelas ends her column with this plea to the president: "Please think beyond two turkeys. There are thousands of people and their families looking to you to do the right thing. Do the humane thing for humans—not just birds."

Presidential history suggests she's going to be disappointed.