A year ago this time, when President Obama issued presidential mercy to one lucky turkey, he hadn’t exercised this presidential pardon a single time that year to spare a human being facing prison.
This year, his record was slightly improved. In 2013, President Obama pardoned 17 people. But those few pardons did not change his record of the lowest clemency rate in modern history. President Obama has the power under the U.S. Constitution to grant both pardons, which revoke an existing conviction, and commutations, which shorten an inmate’s sentence. Given the swell of recent data about overly draconian federal prison sentences, it is particularly remarkable that Obama has only commuted one sentence in his years as president. This is not for a lack of compelling cases. Clemency reform may very well be the next criminal justice reform item on the White House agenda, after recent moves to seek shorter sentences for some drug offenders and avert prosecutions of medical marijuana participants. With or without reform to the process for reviewing applications, here are five people Obama could grant clemency to today, each of whom represent an entire category of U.S. prisoners:
1. Fifty-five years in prison on a marijuana charge. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) spoke on his behalf on the Senate floor. More than 100 prominent figures including former prosecutors and judges sent a letter to the White House imploring his commutation. And a Change.org petition gathered tens of thousands of signatures. But Weldon Angelos still sits in jail on a 55-year prison sentence for three small marijuana infractions and the possession of firearms that were not used or brandished. He was a young dad and aspiring music producer when he was sentenced in 2004. As in so many other cases, the judge who sentenced him called the mandatory minimum term “unjust, cruel, and even irrational,” and went on to point out that defendants have received shorter sentences for hijacking planes, rape, and murder. Drug offenders make up almost half of the bloated federal prison population, which has spiked 790 percent since 1980. And Weldon is among those sitting in jail for marijuana offenses, even as many states move to legalize the substance.
2. Botched by the Pardon Attorney and still waiting. Perhaps no one better stands as a symbol of the broken clemency system than Clarence Aaron. Aaron was a nominal player in a drug deal who is serving a triple life sentence for introducing two dealers to one another in a cocaine deal. It was the amount of drugs and money involved in the overall deal that dictated his sentence, and because several other defendants snitched away their charges, Aaron was handed the highest sentence of all. Aaron’s sentence was the result of wheeling and dealing by more experienced players who made Aaron the scapegoat. But it also resulted from a “conspiracy amendment” to federal mandatory minimum law that allows the lowest person in a so-called drug conspiracy to receive the maximum sentence. Aaron has twice applied to have his federal sentence commuted. He was the subject of a groundbreaking exposé about racially disparate commutations in ProPublica. And an inspector general’s report even found that the U.S. Pardon Attorney mishandled his application. But still he waits.
3. Life without parole for a nonviolent drug offense. In the years after Jesse Webster dropped out of school in ninth grade to help his mother pay the bills in the south side of Chicago, he became involved in a cocaine deal that was aborted before drugs ever changed hands. After hearing he was wanted for questioning, he turned himself in, and was convicted of possession, conspiracy, and filing false tax returns, solely on the basis of testimony by his co-defendants. He declined to become an informant in exchange for a plea deal, worried that it would put his family members at risk. While his co-defendants received less than five years each for cooperating with the government, Webster, who had no criminal record, was sentenced to life without parole by a judge who said the punishment was too high, but whose hands were tied by a mandatory minimum sentence. Webster has since completed his GED, taught himself skills, and counseled other inmates. But no matter what he does, life without parole means no chance to ever see life outside of prison. The judge who sentenced Webster wrote a letter in support of his commutation, as did the prosecutor who charged him. Webster is one of more than 3,200 people serving life without parole sentences for nonviolent offenses, according to recent ACLU data. The number of individuals serving out the harshest U.S. sentence short of execution has quadrupled since 1982.
4. The medical marijuana distributor complying with state law. Chris Williams’ dispensary was considered a model for compliance with state law in Montana, and regularly provided tours to lawmakers and other officials. But in 2011, the dispensary was raided, and federal prosecutors lobbed charges against Williams and his co-owners that would have landed them in jail for life. So each of them took plea deals in exchange for a lower mandatory minimum sentence. Williams was the most committed to defending his case, and went all the way through trial before accepting a rare post-trial plea deal to reduce his 85-year-or-higher sentence to five years so he could see his son’s college graduation. Compliance with state law is no defense to a violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act, so that evidence was not even admissible at trial. Another of Williams’ partners, Richard Flor, died behind bars shackled to a bed from the very ailments that caused him to join the medical marijuana movement in the first place. Now that the Obama administration has announced that it will not prioritize medical marijuana distributors complying with state law, Williams is one of many distributors he could pardon.
5. Sentenced to life because of a racist disparity. Kenneth George Harvey Jr. was convicted of possession with intent to distribute, after a vial of crack cocaine was found strapped to his leg on his way out of an airport. Before the Fair Sentencing Act was passed in 2010, the sentence was 100 times more severe for offenses involving crack cocaine, more widely used among African Americans, than for those involving powder cocaine, associated with whites. So when Harvey went before a judge in 1990, he was sentenced to life without parole, even as U.S. District Judge Howard Sachs lamented, “I do not think it was fully understood or intended by Congress in cases of this nature…but there is no authority that I know of that would permit a different sentence by me.” Sachs even went so far as to recommend that same day that Harvey’s sentence be commuted after 15 years. Harvey has now served 23 years of his sentence, and no commutation has been granted. When Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, it recognized the racism that had pervaded the sentencing for too long. Thus far, most courts have not applied the law retroactively, but the federal appeals court that has called perpetuation of this disparity intentional racial “subjugation.” President Obama could honor the spirit of the law by pardoning or commuting the sentences of the thousands of inmates who would have already been released had the Fair Sentencing Act been in place.