President Barack Obama offered a new batch of commutations on Tuesday, passing the 1,000 mark for his presidency.
For advocates of criminal justice reform, Obama’s efforts to lighten out-of-date sentences for nonviolent drug offenders have taken on new urgency since the election. While Obama has offered more commutations than the past 11 presidents combined, essentially redefining the president’s clemency power, Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric and pick for attorney general suggest his administration will take a much harder line on convicts.
“It makes no sense for a nonviolent drug offender to be serving decades, or sometimes life, in prison,” Obama said in a Facebook post announcing Tuesday’s set of 79 commutations. “That’s not serving taxpayers, and it’s not serving the public safety.”
Obama’s Clemency Initiative started two years ago with a focus on federal inmates who were convicted of drug crimes during an era when drug crimes came with harsher mandatory minimum sentences. As of Tuesday, he’s granted clemency to 1,023 federal inmates.
Over the summer, his Justice Department committed to reviewing the 6,300 drug-related petitions that were pending at the time. In a conference call with reporters, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said the agency was “on track” to finish the review and offer recommendations to the president on how to proceed.
But thousands of petitions that have likely piled up since then will land in Trump’s Justice Department, where Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) has been chosen to take the helm. Sessions was a staunch opponent of a bipartisan compromise on sentencing reduction that has languished in the Senate. That’s leading criminal-justice reform advocates — already frustrated by an earlier bottleneck in processing commutations — to sound a louder alarm.
“Clemency is the one administrative action President Obama can take that will not be overturned by an incoming Trump administration,” said Jessica Jackson Sloan, national director of #cut50.
The group, named for its goal of cutting the prison population in half within 10 years, had already been calling for Obama to commute the sentences of everyone who met the Clemency Initiative’s basic criteria, rather than the slow, case-by-case process that also looks subjectively at an applicant’s potential for success outside prison. On Tuesday, #cut50 joined other criminal-justice reform advocates in asking the president to “expand the scope of his clemency initiative to include a larger number of nonviolent drug offenders in extremely low-risk categories,” according to a release.
On the press call, White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said Obama would continue to grant clemencies through the end of his term. But he made no predictions about how many would eventually benefit.
“We’re not trying to fill a number as much as just grant the ones that seem appropriate,” Eggleston said.