Is Obama Finally About to Use His Pardon Powers to Correct the War on Drug's Injustices?

It's about time.

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Apr 21 2014, 7:10pm

Photo via Flickr user Beth Rankin

Last week, President Barack Obama commuted the prison sentence of a man who had spent three extra years behind bars because of a typo. This was a nice use of the executive privilege of pardons, but it was a blip in the career of a president whose underuse of that power is just another reason for civil liberties advocates to be disappointed in him.

According to a Yahoo News article by Liz Goodwin, however, that disappointment may be about to turn into at least tepid excitement. Goodwin's story is focused on Barbara Scrivner, a woman serving 30 years for meth distribution because of mandatory minimum sentencing. Scrivner’s story—sexual abuse, a negligent mother, depression, early drug use, and a collection of addict-convict boyfriends—is a perfect, dreadful picture of how a troubled person making bad choices can have her life further destroyed by lunatic drug laws. Previously, Scrivner has been denied appeals, though even the judge who sentenced her says she should have received a lighter punishment. But she is trying again, because Obama is maybe about to get kinder and gentler.

In Goodwin’s piece, an unnamed senior administration official claims Obama may be leaning toward granting clemency to "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of prisoners like Scrivner. One of the reasons this may finally happen is that Ronald Rodgers, the Department of Justice’s pardon attorney—who has been opposed to this kind of mercy-showing—is expected to resign, and Obama told a group of prosecutors that he wants to see pardon requests with his own eyes. On Monday, Holder announced that the Justice Department was preparing to hear thousands more requests for clemency from imprisoned crack users.

President Obama has been more miserly in his use of pardons and commutations than any modern president—ProPublica estimated that prisoners whose pardon applications got to Obama’s desk have only a 1 in 50 chance of having their requests granted (though most applications never get to his desk at all). In the last few months, Obama has pardoned a few more prisoners, including some inmates who got screwed by the disproportionately harsh sentences handed down to people who were caught with crack as opposed to powdered cocaine. And last August, Attorney General Eric Holder offered some guidelines—though ones the next administration can ignore—that offer leniency to nonviolent drug offenders. Meanwhile, reducing mandatory minimum sentences that can send people to prison for insanely long periods has become, shockingly, a bipartisan issue that is getting somewhere in Congress. So while the times are a-changin’, a little, Obama hasn’t taken the lead on this issue, despite having spoken eloquently about racism in the justice system, as well as his own youthful drug use.

Holder's announcement, however, makes it more likely that Obama will be using his pardoning power to do some real good and free some people from the cages they’re trapped in. Granting some pardons won’t, by itself, reverse the generations-long effects of the war on drugs, but this would be no small start in terms of righting some of those wrongs.

Here are this week’s bad cops:

–A 78-year-old man in Humansville, Missouri, says he was attacked by police on April 10 because they thought his wife was in trouble. Elbert Breshears called an ambulance to help his wife because she suffers from dementia and had knocked out a window, but the cops showed up before paramedics and apparently assumed he was the bad guy. Breshears says an officer knocked him to the ground, then ordered him to get up to be handcuffed, though the senior citizen couldn’t stand after being struck by the cop. Photographs of Breshears taken later by paramedics confirm that he had a head injury that required stitches as well as a black eye. Thanks to the usual logic of encounters with the police that result in violence, Breshears is currently being charged with elder abuse, resisting arrest, and assaulting a police officer, though he says he wants to press charges against the police. His wife of 47 years is getting care in a nursing home.

–On Friday, VICE contributor Justin Glawe reported on how his friend Jon Daniel’s home was raided on Tuesday because he created a parody Twitter account to make fun of Jim Ardis, the mayor of Peoria, Illinois. The account was actually shut down by Twitter weeks ago because it wasn’t clearly labeled as parody, but seven plainclothes officers from the Peoria police department showed up at Daniel’s home anyway—the social media funnyman said his house was trashed, his roommates were cuffed and interrogated for hours, and police took away his phone and other electronic devices to prove he'd originated the Twitter account. (No charges have been filed as of yet.) It hardly need be said that this is situation is fucking ridiculous in every conceivable way. Already, a bunch of Jim Ardis parody Twitter accounts have appeared in the original’s place.

–A deputy who was serving an eviction notice in Riverside, California, on Wednesday accidentally shot himself in the leg when he tried to take down an approaching pit bull. According to spokesman for the sheriff’s department, the pit bull, named Precious, approached the deputy in “an aggressive manner,” so he fired, scaring the dog into complacency but injuring himself in the process. A local TV crew later filmed Precious calmly wagging her tail while children petted it—hardly the dangerous animal the cops made it out to be. The owner, who felt bad for the injured deputy, says the dog was indeed barking, as dogs will do, but the dog was behind a fence. A good rule of thumb is to not shoot dogs when there’s a barrier between you and them.

–Footage of Vandegrift High School student rushing the field Saturday after a winning championship soccer game in Austin, Texas, shows a uniformed police officer tripping and shoving several students. That was probaly not what his assignment was! A local Georgetown police officer—seen at the top of the frame in television footage—was seen more clearly in cell phone video taken by 15-year-old Rohan Gupta, who told local news station KXAN that “[The cop] should’ve used better judgement. We’re high schoolers just trying to have some fun after our team won.” The department is going to forward the video to internal affairs for investigation, but you gotta wonder how much “investigating” needs to be done in the case of a cop knocking over kids.

–Masslive’s Garrett Quinn (a friend of mine) reported on April 21 on some of the arguably excessive security measures instituted at the Boston Marathon one year after the Tsarnaev brothers killed three people and injured 260 with their pressure cooker bombs. These controversial measures will include bag searches for race watchers, a ban on backpacks for runners, bomb dogs, 3,000 police officers, and 400 military police officers. Quinn interviewed a 27-year veteran of the Boston police department whose civil liberties–savvy concerns about all this tough stuff makes him our Good Cop of the Week, even if he is retired. Tom Nolan, now a criminal justice professor at SUNY-Plattsburgh in New York, told Quinn that bag searches in public without a warrant are a violation of the Fourth Amendment. “This is a public place, these are public streets,” he said. “People have the absolute right to travel them without being stopped and searched by police.” Nolan also criticized the psychic effect that this kind of security theater has—people accept it so they can feel safer, and their rights get stripped away in the process. Hopefully other cops are paying attention to what Nolan is saying—some of them might consider taking his classes.

Lucy Steigerwald is a freelance writer and photographer. Read her blog here and follow her on Twitter.

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