Why Won't Obama Let More Drug Offenders Out of Jail Early?

Since the Eisenhower years, presidents have tended to relegate granting clemency to the holiday season, treating pardons like gifts. Unless something changes soon, President Obama will go down as one of the shittiest Santas in history.

|
Dec 23 2014, 3:22pm

Photo via Flickr user DoD News Features

Last week, the Department of Justice announced that eight drug offenders from Alabama to Oregon will be released on June 15. While that's a huge victory for those individuals, it's barely a drop in a very large bucket. For years, Obama has been known as one of the stingiest presidents when it comes to granting clemency.

The presidential pardon is one of the few unchecked powers in government—neither Congress nor the courts need to be consulted. Petitions are constantly fielded to a team of bureaucrats who vet them and send worthy ones along to the Oval Office.

This used to happen very regularly—even President Zachary Taylor, who was only in office for 16 months, managed to pardon 38 people. But since the Eisenhower years, presidents have tended to relegate pardons and commutations to the holiday season, treating them like gifts. And unless something changes soon, President Obama will go down as one of the shittiest Santas in history.

"Obama and [Attorney General] Holder both for many years—and certainly during the campaign—specifically addressed sentences and disparity in sentencing, so there was an expectation that he would bring hope and change," says P.S. Ruckman, a political scientist at Rock Valley College in Illinois who studies pardons. "And my Lord it just has not worked out that way."

There's a history of presidents granting clemency to their bros. Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, who made illegal deals during the Iran-Contra crisis, because he was a big campaign supporter. George W. Bush commuted the sentence of Scooter Libby, the former White House chief of staff who leaked information about a CIA informant, allegedly because she was critical of the country's involvement in Iraq.

But on the flipside, that power can also be used to promote an ideological agenda. For instance, in 1977, Jimmy Carter made good on a campaign promise by pardoning Vietnam draft dodgers. And if Obama wanted to make a similar stand, it would make sense for him to give non-violent drug offenders a leg up.

According to a report that came out in March by the Prison Policy Initiative, there are an estimated 2.4 million locked up in the United States—many of them for drug-related offenses.

In April, it seemed like the executive office was turning a corner in addressing this and reversing a trend toward granting fewer and fewer petitions for clemency. That's when Deputy Attorney General James Cole reached out to America's lawyers for help, and a group of volunteers answered the call by forming the Clemency Project 2014, providing pro bono legal assistance for desperate prisoners.

There was also a new federal criterion that would give drug offenders preference for official forgiveness. Special consideration was to be provided to inmates serving sentences that would likely have been much shorter had they been handed out today. With that reasoning, people arrested during the crack epidemic would be given a break, since prosecutors went a little bit overboard in prescribing some crazy punishments due to mandatory minimum sentencing laws. It seemed even more likely that victims of reefer madness would taste freedom, since social mores have changed and weed is now legal in 23 states and well on its way in Washington, DC.

And marijuana activists have their own reason to be pissed. Strangely enough, not a single one of the lucky eight announced last week is in jail for weed. To date, out of the 85 people he's let off the hook, Obama has only commuted sentences for five people charged with purely pot-related offenses.

A lot of that can be attributed to a sheer numbers game. Basically, there are way too many people with long sentences for substances like powdered cocaine that the pot people slipped through the proverbial crack. But activists point to interviews like the one Obama gave with CNN in January, in which he criticized "heavy criminal penalties" for pot.

"We're rather disappointed with the list, seeing as Obama himself has said the federal government has much bigger fish to fry than people with marijuana offenses," says Eric Altieri, a spokesperson for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "On the federal end alone, there are at least a dozen candidates who should have had no problem qualifying for this program."

Ultimately, though, there's still time for Obama to align his words and his actions. He could, theoretically, let thousands of drug offenders out of jail in a marathon session of paperwork signing. And according to the DOJ, there are already almost 8,000 petitions for clemency waiting to be decided for next year—an unprecedented amount.

But Ruckman, the pardon scholar, hopes he doesn't wait until the very end. For one thing, that would mean people who deserve a pardon have to spend even longer in jail. Secondly, it would just make Obama look like a dick. And it will also add insult to injury, perpetuating the idea that the pardon is a "gift," and opening up those who receive it to scrutiny when they're trying to reintegrate into society.

"If he does it at the last possible second, it will be horrible," the political scientist told me. "It opens up all kinds of criticism, it looks suspicious, and the people who get it will have a shadow permanently cast over them."

Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.

Stories