President Obama plans to grant clemency to “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of people convicted of drug crimes, a new report says.
Obama “wants to use his previously dormant pardon power as part of a larger strategy to restore fairness to the criminal-justice system,” Yahoo! News reported on Monday.
A senior administration official tells Yahoo News the president could grant clemency to ‘hundreds, perhaps thousands’ of people locked up for nonviolent drug crimes by the time he leaves office — a stunning number that hasn’t been seen since Gerald Ford extended amnesty to Vietnam draft dodgers in the 1970s.
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.
Obama has been outspoken on his belief that racial biases have long driven what he considers unfair sentencing parameters for drug offenders — for example, people convicted on charges involving crack cocaine, often used in inner cities, get stiffer penalties than those jailed on powder cocaine. In fact, he persuaded lawmakers to pass the Fair Sentencing Act, which he signed in 2010, to change the disparity.
But the president has used the pardon process sparingly, far less than his predecessors. He pardoned just 22 people in his first term, and just more than 50 to date. Vanita Gupta, a deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, called his record on mercy “abysmal,” Yahoo! reported. He’s been even more stingy with commutations, commuting just 10 sentences out of 10,000 requests.
Last year, Obama reduced the sentences of eight prisoners serving long federal prison sentences for crack cocaine crimes. He also pardoned 13 others, six of whom were in prison for drug offenses.
“If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” Obama said. “Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.”