Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Has Obama Got Game?

President Obama has been in office more than 1,000 days and yet has granted a mere 22 pardons and a single commutation of sentence. These acts of clemency followed some of the longest delays in initial action in American history. Speaking of history ... there were plenty of reasons NOT to have expected this:

Democratic presidents have generally been more generous with the pardon power, as have former lawyers. In addition, the Obama administration does not feature several things that have been associated with down-turns in the exercise of clemency: experience as a former governor, following on the heels of a major clemency controversy in the previous administration, etc. Throw in the fact that the federal prison population is booming and applications for clemency have boomed as well and ... well ... one might very well have expected a boon in the exercise of the pardon power.

OK. Fine.

Now, at last, is there is a glimmer of hope? The president has granted 5 pardons and - for the first time - a commutation of sentence. The typical Obama clemency recipient has committed some minor offense decades ago. But, the offenses of this little group are a little more recent (relevant). The typical Obama pardon recipient has also served no time in prison. And the ones that have served time have averaged only 24 months. In this little batch of grants, however, are three prison sentences: 36, 108 and 262 months in length. Why, someone, somewhere, may have actually had to have put some serious thought into these decisions.

The commutation of sentence case involved a low-level non-violent drug offense which resulted in a 22-year prison sentence for a 24-year old mother of three. Mandatory minimum sentence laws have, of course, been on everyone's mind since the day Obama and Attorney General Holder rode into town, in part, on the basis of fiery rhetoric that suggested disparities in sentencing were the result of racism. However, to date, Congress has been way out in front on the issue and the pardon power has been irrelevant. One wonders how many young, first-time, non-violent offenders, with excellent prison records who were sentenced under the old 100-to-1 laws would already be out of prison, had they been sentenced under the current (less unfair) 18-to-1 formula? Why do any of them spend a single additional day in prison? With one stroke of a pen, the president could do them justice.

At last, a commutation.

And, it is worth remembering that, one out of every two pardons granted over the last 39 years has been granted in the month of December. And here is Obama, testing the November air. Perhaps a serious effort to restore balance in the federal criminal justice system will follow.

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