Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Mr. President: Condition the Commutations

In April, the Obama administration announced that it would create a kind of accelerated attention to applications for commutations of sentence for:

1. those without a significant criminal history
2. Low-level offenders without significant ties to large scale criminal organizations, gangs or cartels
3. Non-violent offenders with no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment.
4. Those who have demonstrated good conduct in prison
5. Those who likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense
6. Those who have served at least 10 years of their prison sentence

The 5th point of concern is, of course, a driving mechanism. The remaining points are details, but important details nonetheless.

Earlier, we found interesting that the policy did not emphasize "first time offenders," but instead focuses on those without a "significant criminal history." That language, while certainly providing flexibility in decision making, is bound to result in a problem here and there.

We also noted that the concern for non-violent behavior on the front end and "good conduct" in prison on the back end seems fair, if not wise. Although one wonders if "no history" disqualifies anyone with clear evidence of rehabilitation after a rough start.

We wish, here, to emphasize that we remain convinced that it would also be prudent for the president to grant conditional commutations of sentence to those who fall into these grids. The debate over sentencing has been lengthy and, in many ways, extraordinary. The President's apparent willingness to become involved is also notable. In addition to being given reason to celebrate, recipients should also be reminded of a great burden of responsibility. Their lives and conduct will be under considerable scrutiny. Any offense committed after release will attract more than usual attention because it will seem - to many - to cast a shadow of doubt on the President's judgement.

Such blame would be neither appropriate, nor deserved. Thus, the President should condition each and every commutation on good behavior and require that offenders return to prison to complete their sentences if, somehow, they are not as appreciative of this extraordinary moment in their lives / our history.

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