Nonviolent inmates and their families leaped for joy in June 2014 when Obama announced that he would push forward with a review of the clemency system. One year ago the president ran game by stating to the Marshall Project that clemency applications were being processed “more effectively” and a “steady ramp up” was in play. There are 9,000 clemency petitions awaiting a decision on whether they deserve the president’s consideration. Most of the clemency petitions are coming from non violent federal prisoners seeking reductions of ridiculously long drug sentences.
Yesterday, March 30, 2016, Obama commuted the sentences of 61 inmates. And given that the fact that some beneficiaries engaged in firearms offenses, they also represent hypocrisy on the part of a president who purports to be concerned about America’s “gun culture.”
As a Prison Consultant, I’m aware that many of these federal prisoners do have a valid case for clemency and need not continue to serve the long sentences they have been handed. However, we are where we are at the moment and hope seems dimmed.
The sheer number of awaiting petitions raises a basic and thought-provoking question – was the government ever serious about Clemency 2014?
The rules for commutation requests even reaching the overburdened pardons office under the initiative are intolerably disappointing. The worst of these is that inmates must have served at least 10 years of their sentence. Other rules state they must not have “a significant criminal history” (whatever the heck that means); they must be nonviolent, low-level offenders; and they must be serving a sentence harsher than they would have gotten if convicted of the same offense today.
Obama has granted just 70 pardons, the lowest mark for any full-term president since John Adams, and 187 commutations of sentence. Meanwhile, 1,629 pardon petitions have been denied (more than five times the number of previous six presidents), as well as 8,123 requests for commutations (a new record). An additional 3,444 requests have been “closed without presidential action.”
Obama’s record is all the more deplorable because of assurances that he has made and that have been made on his behalf. On April 21, 2014, then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. encouraged federal prisoners to seek relief, noting that, despite sentencing reforms Obama signed into law in 2010, there were “still too many people . . . sentenced under the old regime” who needed attention. Holder said the White House had “indicated” that it wanted to “consider additional clemency applications to restore a degree of justice, fairness, and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety.” In addition, the Justice Department was “committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences.” Clemency Project 2014 has, however, become a bureaucratic disaster, assigned to volunteer lawyers and law students with little if any experience in the pitfalls of dealing with the federal criminal justice system.
Prison Consultants, who are in touch with and feel the pulse of inmates ought to be incorporated in this process for a more balanced and speedy processing of applications.
By now, Obama could have simply signed an amnesty proclamation covering everyone qualifying for lesser sentences. He could have taken the pardon process out of the Justice Department and given the job to a commission or an independent agency that would give him a degree of political cover if anything went wrong. Just such a move had been proposed by his first White House counsel, Gregory Craig.
Regardless, seven neglectful years allow for few pretty endings. If current patterns persist, Obama will go down as one of the most merciless presidents in history. On the other hand, even a moderate display of concern about clemency, with a few grants here and there, will almost certainly be viewed (and dubbed) as “a last-minute gesture,” granted to avoid any serious political accountability. With his recent trip to Cuba, dancing in Buenos Aires and endless bashing during the presidential campaign, I’m thinking “duh you are going to get bashed whether you pardon inmates or not, so go ahead and start dipping your pen.”
Having waited almost two years before granting his first presidential pardon, Obama would probably do as much harm to the general reputation of the pardon power as to his personal legacy with a controversial, Bill Clintonesque splurge in clemency just before leaving office. Sadly, many deserving recipients would be besmirched as well. This is the bed the president has made for himself.
This Thanksgiving he should kill the turkey along with the pardons.
Faced with the current situation, a new convict is better off engaging the services of a Prison Coach. At the very least, a Prison Coach, will prepare you to cope with prison conditions, while we can only hope that the “dark tunnel” of delayed pardons will receive a glimmer of light from the next White House occupant.