President Obama Could Grant Clemency To Thousands Of Non-Violent Drug Offenders

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“I take my clemency authority very seriously,” President Obama reportedly told a group of U.S. attorneys at a meeting last month at the White House. You wouldn’t know it from his record thus far. While he has recently seem a new spurt of activity, granting commutations to eight drug offenders, and another last week who received a longer sentence by accident, he nonetheless has the worst record of granting presidential mercy to those in prison of any president in modern history.

But Obama says he plans to correct for this stingy use of his pardon power, potentially granting clemency to hundreds or even thousands of non-violent drug offenders before he leaves office, an unnamed administration official told Yahoo News. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday that the Justice Department will release new standards for assessing clemency applications, in line with this new effort.

“The White House has indicated it wants 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,” Holder said in a video message. “The Justice Department is committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences.”

Many of the drug offenders who would likely have their sentences shortened by the White House were sentenced under draconian sentencing regimes that mandated decades in prison even as many judges giving those sentences lamented that their hands were tied. Many of these individuals would be given lesser sentences if they were convicted today.

Obama retains the power under the U.S. Constitution to grant pardons, the revocation of a conviction; and commutations, the shortening of a sentence. The use of the pardon power is not an exoneration for any crime. Instead, it is an expression of mercy, and a rare check on the justice system in instances of severe injustice.

Almost all applicants — even the most sympathetic ones — have thus far been denied clemency under the Obama administration. In fact, an investigation of one clemency denial for a man serving a triple life sentence for his ancillary role in a drug deal found that the U.S. Pardon Attorney botched his application. That offender, Clarence Aaron, was later one of eight individuals granted a commutation by President Obama.

Two of the other eight individuals whose sentences were commuted by Obama in December were serving life sentences for a first-time conviction that Holder said were “considered severe at the time, and are profoundly out of date today.” One beneficiary was Reynolds Withersmith, who was sentenced to life without parole on a crack-cocaine conspiracy offense that he committed as a teen. Another was Stephanie George, who, like many drug offenders serving life without parole, was given the longest sentence of any of her co-defendants, even though the judge who sentenced her under protest lamented that her primary role was as “a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder.”

“These stories illustrate the vital role that the clemency process can play in America’s justice system,” Holder said Monday.

As part of the reform, Obama may replace the Pardon Attorney, Ronald L. Rodgers, the unnamed source said. And Holder pledged to commit “dozens” of lawyers to review an influx of what he expected would be “thousands” of applications.

Obama told the U.S. attorneys he expects the office that reviews these applications, the Office of the Pardon Attorney, to take these applications seriously rather than “reflexively” deny them.

Advocates are seizing the opportunity to file thousands of new clemency petitions — many likely for the second time. In all, Obama has granted just ten of 10,000 commutation requests, according to Yahoo, but has started soliciting new applications over the past few months.

The move is one of several by the Justice Department and the White House in a “Smart on Crime” initiative to correct decades of discriminatory, overly harsh punishment for non-violent drug crimes during the War on Drugs era. Most of the temporary fixes, primarily through scaled back prosecutions, could be made permanent and more expansive by bipartisan sentencing reform bills now pending in Congress.

The Justice Department is expected to release detailed criteria later this week.