A White House official told Yahoo that President Obama is prepared to use his pardon power to grant clemency to “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of people who have been jailed for nonviolent drug crimes. The report said that the administration is making moves that will help it handle the increase in petitions that Mr. Obama is planning to sign off on before he leaves office. Last Tuesday, White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler said Obama has directed the Justice Department to improve its clemency recommendation process and recruit more applications from convicts.
The White House’s new moves would follow in the footsteps of a January announcement that the Obama administration would taking the unprecedented step of encouraging defense lawyers to suggest inmates whom the president might let out of prison early, as part of its effort to curtail severe penalties in low-level drug cases.
In December, President Obama commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates convicted of non-violent drug offenses involving crack cocaine. Mr. Obama said the eight men and women had been sentenced under an “unfair system,” including the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses that was reduced to 18:1 by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.
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In the past year, Attorney General Eric Holder has made a number of forceful public statements against mass incarceration in the U.S., promising significant rollback of mandatory minimums and harsh sentencing guidelines. Yet, despite his administration’s declared support for substantive criminal justice reform, until now Obama has used his power to grant clemency less frequently than nearly all other U.S. Presidents.
Mr. Obama has been under significant public pressure from advocacy groups and family members of people who are serving mandatory minimum drug sentences.
“This would be a positive step toward righting the wrongs of our broken criminal justice system,” said Anthony Papa, Media Relations Manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, who was granted clemency in New York State in 1997 after serving 12 years under the notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws. “I hope governors with the same power at the state level follow his lead and reunite more families.”
“With half a million people still behind bars on non-violent drug charges, clearly thousands are deserving of a second chance. Congress should act immediately to reduce the draconian federal mandatory minimum sentences that condemn thousands to decades behind bars for non-violent drug offenses,” added Papa.
The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee has passed bipartisan sentencing reform legislation that would reduce the federal prison population, decrease racial disparities, save taxpayer money, and reunite nonviolent drug law offenders with their families sooner. The reforms are supported by a strange bedfellows group of senators, including Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Carl Levin (D-MI) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).
The Smarter Sentencing Act is the biggest overhaul in federal drug sentencing in decades. It would:
- Cut federal mandatory minimums for drug law violations, so that nonviolent offenders serve less time behind bars.
- Make the reform to the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity that Congress passed in 2010 retroactive, so that thousands of people sentenced under the old draconian and racially unjust policy can leave prison early.
- Expand the ability of judges to use their own discretion when sentencing defendants, so that judges can consider the unique facts of each case and each individual before them.
According to today’s report, the Justice Department is planning to replace their pardon attorney, Ronald Rodgers, and is making other administrative moves to prepare for the expanded clemency process:
“The scope of the new clemency initiative is so large that administration officials are preparing a series of personnel and process changes to help them manage the influx of petitions they expect Obama to approve. Among the changes is reforming the recently censured office within the Justice Department responsible for processing pardon petitions. Yahoo News has learned that the pardon attorney, Ronald Rodgers, who was criticized in a 2012 Internal watchdog report for mishandling a high-profile clemency petition, is likely to step down as part of that overhaul. Additional procedures for handling large numbers of clemency petitions could be announced as soon as this week, a senior administration official said, though it could take longer.”