Obama takes small step toward mercy

The New York TimesDecember 25, 2013 

The following editorial appeared in The New York Times:

President Barack Obama’s decision to commute the outrageously long drug sentences of eight men and women showed a measure of compassion and common sense. But it also served to highlight the injustice being done to thousands of prisoners under federal sentencing laws.

In issuing the commutations, Obama blamed the “unfair system” that is keeping thousands behind bars solely because they were sentenced before August 2010, when Congress reduced the vast disparity between the way federal courts punish crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses. The three-year-old federal law, the Fair Sentencing Act, allows prisoners to petition a judge to shorten their sentence, but it does not apply to nearly 9,000 prisoners who were already serving time when it was passed. While Congress is considering legislation to make the law retroactive, any such fix is far from assured.

In addition, thousands more federal drug prisoners are serving unjust sentences for other reasons, including mandatory minimums that punish anyone connected to a sales or trafficking operation based on the overall weight of the drugs, regardless of how minor a role that person played. For many of these people – including Clarence Aaron, who received three life sentences for a first-time, nonviolent drug deal, which Obama commuted – there is no prospect of helpful legislation on the horizon. Their only hope is executive clemency.

It is important to recognize that while Obama showed mercy to these eight people, his administration has been the least merciful in modern times. The power to mitigate an overly harsh sentence is squarely in his hands, and yet in nearly five years he has commuted just nine sentences and issued 52 pardons. (A commutation lessens the severity of a punishment, while a pardon forgives the offense itself and restores the rights people lose when they go to prison.)

There is no excuse for this lack of compassion. The risk to public safety is often used to justify denials of clemency, but a preliminary report issued in July by the United States Sentencing Commission found that the recidivism rates for the more than 7,300 prisoners who received sentence reductions under the Fair Sentencing Act were similar to those for inmates who served full sentences.

There is now fairly widespread agreement that federal drug laws are far too harsh and inflexible, and that their burden falls most heavily upon the poor and racial minorities.

Given so many cases of injustice, why was Obama able to identify only a handful of people worthy of clemency? Part of the fault lies with the pardon office, which has been ineffective in doing its job in processing clemency requests. Last week’s commutations were the result of a request Obama made a year ago to have the Justice Department review pending clemency petitions. Clemency, however, is not the solution to all of the irrationality and harshness of America’s sentencing laws.

Obama did not create the broken criminal justice system, but he can do much more to lessen its impact on those who have been most unfairly punished by it.

The New York Times

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