On Tuesday, Aug. 30, President Obama commuted the sentences of 111 federal drug offenders. In his first term, Obama endured the sting of critics like me who called him one of the stingiest modern presidents when it comes to the presidential pardon power. In his second term, Obama is making up for lost time. With 673 commutations, the Washington Post reports, Obama has approached 690, the number of commutations issued by the previous 11 presidents.
Obama deserves credit for doing the right thing. The federal mandatory minimum sentencing system — the bastard child of Washington’s ill-conceived war on drugs — was supposed to put drug kingpins away for long sentences. But the system lacks proportion, and too often has been used to put away low-level and nonviolent drug offenders for decades — 232 Obama commutation recipients were serving sentences of life without parole. The pardon power was put in the U.S. Constitution in part to allow the president to correct for this brand of institutional overkill.
In his first years in office, I needled Obama for his lack of mercy. So now when he announces a big batch of commutations, I often hear from readers challenging me to praise the president for using his pardon power. When Obama began to turn on the spigot in 2013, I did so. As he has stepped up his efforts, I have been a little conflicted. On the one hand, I think it is great that Obama is bestowing mercy, as I have no doubt that thousands of the 193,070 federal inmates are serving sentences that far outweigh their crimes. On the other hand, I fear that the sheer volume and velocity of this effort could doom this exercise to a bad ending.
The president changed his clemency criteria to allow for the early release of drug offenders also charged for firearms possession. As Obama said recently, “There may be a situation where a kid at 18 was a member of a gang, had a firearm, did not use it in the offense that he was charged in, there’s no evidence that he used it in any violence offense.” The president is right on principle but, as his administration tries to process some 11,000 applications before he exits, the looming deadline expands the opportunity to make mistakes by releasing someone who is violent.
Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums sees safeguards. Recipients take seriously their responsibility not to make Obama look bad. Also, some 2016 commutations come with strings -- recipients have to spend time in halfway houses or stick with drug treatment programs. Some commutations reduce long sentences, but the inmate still must remain in prison for some time. Former Pardon Attorney Margaret Love fears that with this rushed schedule, the administration will turn down inmates who deserve commutations.
I’m with Pardon Power blogger P. S. Ruckman Jr., who has seen last-minute pardons “do more damage long term.” Think of Bill Clinton’s 140 out-the-door-clemency grants. Ruckman fears that if some inmates are not well-vetted — as happens with a rush job — and they re-offend in headline-making ways, “the next president who comes in will be gun shy” with the pardon power. Me, I am thrilled Obama is using his pardon power, and crossing my fingers he is using it well.