As Clock Ticks Down, Pressure Mounts on Obama to Free More Drug War Prisoners

President Obama has commuted the sentences of more than a thousand federal drug war prisoners, but thousands more have applications in the pipeline, and now, faced with an incoming Trump administration exceedingly unlikely to act on those petitions, scholars, activists, and at least one US congressman are calling on Obama to expedite clemency efforts  while he still can.


In a Tuesday letter, more than 50 scholars and advocates, including Van Jones and performer John Legend, as well as representatives from the NAACP and the Southern Center for Human Rights, not only called on Obama to ramp up the pace of commutations, but also to consider granting clemency to entire categories of drug war prisoners without case-by-case review.

In a 2014 Justice Department move, the Obama administration called on prisoners still doing time for offenses whose sentences were reduced under the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act to seek sentence cuts and set out criteria spelling out who was eligible. While thousands have applied, a strict vetting process and problems in the Office of the Pardons Attorney means that thousands of clemency requests have yet to be acted on.

Time is too tight to just continue as before, the advocates said, especially given the "law and order" proclivities of the next administration.

"While your administration continues to review individual petitions, we urge you to also determine that nonviolent offenders in certain extremely low-risk categories either deserve expedited review or should be granted clemency absent an individualized review," the group wrote.

"We do not know whether the next president will support clemency efforts or criminal justice reform," the letter concluded. "But we do know that until January 20, you alone have the power to deliver both mercy and justice to those who deserve it."

The group suggested that instead of a time-consuming individualized assessment of inmates' prison behavior, the administration use "prison placement (to a minimum security camp or a low- or medium-security facility) as a surrogate for how an individual has behaved in prison" in order to speed up the process. Another suggestion was to grant clemency to those labeled "career offenders" based solely on drug convictions. And the group suggested that Obama need not "commute entire sentences," but could instead provide partial "tiered relief" to reduce some sentences.

The scholars and advocates weren't the only ones putting Obama on notice that the clock is ticking. US Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice also sent the president a Tuesday letter urging expedited action on commutations.

"I would urge you to summon the maximum manpower at your disposal to vet commutations and pardons so that as many sentencing wrongs as possible may be corrected as thousands of incarcerated Americans who are serving unjust sentences may receive justice," wrote Cohen.

 

While much of the attention has been focused on people sentenced to decades in prison over small amounts of crack cocaine—an injustice only partially redressed in the Fair Sentencing Act—Cohen also recently urged Obama not to forget pot prisoners.

"President Obama should be commuting the prison sentences of those serving time for non-violent marijuana-related convictions," said Cohen. "Medical marijuana is now legal in 28 states as well as the District of Columbia, and more than 63 million Americans live in states that have now approved recreational marijuana. The President should increase clemency review staff and work overtime to free as many of these individuals as possible before he leaves office. Every day that someone continues to serve an unjust sentence is a day justice is denied. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so rightly noted, ‘Justice too long delayed is justice denied.’"

The clock is ticking. 

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