Obama More Tightfisted With Clemencies Than Bush

Earlier this year, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, reforming the draconian 100-to-1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences. During the panic and hysteria around drugs and crime in the mid-1980s, outrageous laws were passed that mandated a minimum five-year sentence for possession of just five grams of crack cocaine (similar in weight to a couple of sugar packets). To receive this same punishment for cocaine in powder form, an individual would have to possess 500 grams, despite the fact that the two drugs are nearly identical in pharmacology and health effects.

To pass the Fair Sentencing Act and get Republican buy-in, however, the Democrats watered down the original bill that would have eliminated the 100-to-1 disparity completely, and instead reduced the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1.

Even more troubling was that that the reform was not applied retroactively – which means that none of the tens of thousand of people unfairly languishing in cages will find any relief from the new law.

Since the new law was passed in August, I regularly receive calls from their family members, many in tears, asking how they can help get their loved ones home soon. I have to tell them they can’t. Without providing relief for those still incarcerated under the 100-to-1 disparity, justice has not been served.

To address this injustice, Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia introduced the Fair Sentencing Clarification Act of 2010 on December 17, 2010. The law would allow people who are currently imprisoned under the old sentencing structure to have their sentence lowered so that it is brought into alignment with the new 18-to-1 compromise.

While this law would address a major flaw with the Fair Sentencing Act, it’s hard to see Congress taking action. The same advocates and voices that pushed through this year’s reform need to turn up the heat.

In the meantime, President Obama has the power to address some of the egregious sentences facing some of those left behind. He has the power of clemency. This tool can provide relief immediately and does not need approval from Congress or anyone else. Unfortunately, President Obama has yet to issue a singe commutation in his two years in office. At this rate, President Bush has brought relief to more people through clemencies than Obama, the man who said the crack laws were a disgrace.

Yesterday, advocates for presidential clemency, including the NAACP, Drug Policy Alliance, The Sentencing Project, Open Society Policy Center, Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, and others, joined with Kemba Smith and Dorothy Gaines to call on President Obama to expedite clemency for people serving excessive terms under the old crack sentencing laws. Kemba Smith and Dorothy Gaines were both given clemency 10 years ago this week by President Clinton.

Kemba Smith Pradia was sentenced as a first-time nonviolent drug offender to 24.5 years in federal prison – even though the prosecutor of her case said she never handled, used or sold any of the drugs involved. Currently, she is a national public speaker, advocate and founder of the Kemba Smith Foundation.

Dorothy Gaines is a single mother of three who was convicted of minor involvement in her boyfriends’ small-scale crack distribution and served six years of a 19.5 year sentence before she was granted commutation. She currently works with at-risk youth in Mobile, Alabama.

Kemba, Dorothy and others are pledging to fast on December 22, the ten-year anniversary of receiving clemency. They are asking others to join them in fasting that day and to commit to calling President Obama to urge him to take action.

While the real solution for the thousands who need relief is the Bobby Scott bill, we need President Obama to show his commitment and support by helping some folks immediately with one stroke of his pen. It would be a travesty for Obama to lag behind former president Bush when it comes to helping reunite families in time for the holidays.