In a move that many prison reform advocates hope is a sign of similar actions to come, President Barack Obama announced Tuesday that he will commute the sentences of 22 prisoners who were serving time for drug offenses.
The announcement effectively doubled Obama's total uses of his pardon power throughout his tenure as president.
The commutations come nearly a year after Deputy Attorney General James Cole first announced a new clemency initiative intended to identify and vet inmates who had been harshly sentenced for low-level drug crimes and may make good candidates for clemency. The initiative was set to examine all 215,000 federal inmates for potential pardons.
White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said in the announcement that many of the individuals whose sentences were being commuted would not have been sentenced to such harsh penalties if their crimes were committed today. Many of the recipients had been sentenced to decades or life in prison for minor drug crimes.
"Had they been sentenced under current laws and policies, many of these individuals would have already served their time and paid their debt to society," Eggleston wrote on the White House website. "Because many were convicted under an outdated sentencing regime, they served years — in some cases more than a decade — longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime."
The administration said that clemency is a last-resort option, and urged Democrats and Republicans to work together on "sensible reforms" to the criminal justice system to reform mandatory minimum sentencing laws. It cited the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity in sentences for powder cocaine and crack cocaine crimes as one such successful reform.
'The hope is that this is not a punctuation mark, or if it is that it's a comma, and that more are coming'
Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), an advocacy group working to reform drug laws, told VICE News today she is "thrilled" about Obama's decision, and hopes for more action in the future. FAMM said in a statement that one of their own members, Donel Marcus Clark, had received one of the commutations after serving more than 20 years of a 30-year prison sentence for his first and only drug offense, participation in a crack conspiracy.
"FAMM has worked on commutations and trying to increase the use of the clemency power for a number of years. We were involved as far back as the Clinton administration. It's always been an issue close to our hearts and our activism," Price said, noting that FAMM primarily works closely with prisoners and their family members. "So for us, it's very personal, and one the most personal acts that can be done, so we're thrilled."
P.S. Ruckman, a political science professor at Rock Valley College in Illinois who writes about pardon issues at his blog Pardon Power, said that the announcement today may signal a change in Obama's policy toward pardoning.
"Generally speaking, he hasn't been very generous with pardons or commutations, either one of them, and that's really why this is a big deal," Ruckman said. "The hope is that this is not a punctuation mark, or if it is that it's a comma, and that more are coming."
Ruckman and Price both said they hope Obama will continue to commute and pardon drug offenders for the remainder of his term, and that it is not unusual for presidents to use their pardoning power tied to policy issues. Price cited former president Jimmy Carter's pardons of Vietnam draft dodgers as another example.
"These are very policy-driven pardons, all drug offenses with long sentences, most have been in prison a decade or two, and that's why in my mind they're smart pardons. They're things people are not as likely to complain about. Conservatives and liberals are starting to agree on this stuff, and so it's not likely to draw a lot of criticism. They're smart and safe pardons," Ruckman said.
The White House also published a letter written by Obama to each of the prisoners, urging them to "make good choices," and "prove the doubters wrong."
Price called the letters "remarkable" and said she hadn't seen anything like them in presidential pardons before.
"It was extraordinarily personal," she said. "A really compelling mixture of encouragement and hope, and a real recognition of the challenges that each of these people would face. And you really hear a voice, it's almost like he's talking to each one as someone who understands the enormity of what has happened to these people, and what will face them now."
Reformers and the White House all acknowledged that even with the commutations, more reforms were needed to make the criminal justice system fair — particularly for drug-related offenses.
"Ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system will require ongoing efforts to invest in the types of programs that help prevent individuals from turning to crime, like education and jobs, as well as changes to our sentencing laws to ensure that the punishment really does fit the crime," Eggleston wrote.
"As we work to make those improvements, the president will continue to use his clemency authority in certain instances where justice, fairness, and proportionality demand it, and to give eligible and worthy individuals who have paid their debt to society a chance to contribute in meaningful ways," he added.
Price said specifically that minimum mandatory laws that require significant incarceration time and don't give judges any flexibility in sentencing need to be reformed.
"Clemency is simply a means of triage," FAMM said in a statement released on the heels of the White House announcement. "No number of commutations is an adequate substitute for reforming federal mandatory minimum laws."
"I personally hope he does this on a regular basis kind of thing, 10 or 20 here and there until the end, as opposed to waiting until the last month of the last year," Ruckman said, explaining that last-minute pardons give the appearance of being a gift that prisoners may or may not deserve, or seem rushed to the public.
Obama could legally grant amnesty for prisoners sentenced under laws that have now been changed, Ruckman pointed out, though he said it was unlikely.
"Commutation is an extraordinary power," Price said. "And it ought to be used robustly to address injustice and recognize rehabilitation. But at end of the day to reform our system, we've got to fix these laws," Price said. "We've got to get rid of or at least reform mandatory minimum that these people would still face today."