Thursday, August 4, 2016
Q Thank you, Mr. President. Yesterday, you commuted the sentences of 214 federal inmates. It was the largest single-day grant of commutations in the history of the American presidency. So I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about your clemency thought process.
One is, you’ve talked about this as low-level drug offenders who got mandatory minimum sentences, but about a quarter of the commutations you’ve made also had firearms offenses. Given your overall philosophy on firearms, can you reconcile that for us? And given that previously in your presidency you had sent a memo to the Office of Pardon Attorney saying there was sort of a predisposition against firearms to be granted clemency, why did you change your mind on that?
Also, the other side of the ledger here is pardons. You’ve granted more commutations than any President since Calvin Coolidge. You’ve granted fewer pardons than any two-term President since John Adams. Why is that? Is the focus on commutations taking energy away from pardons, especially since these are -- you’ve talked about second chances; a full pardon would give people a better chance at those second chances.
THE PRESIDENT: Good.
Q And then finally, just one other thing on pardons. Many of your predecessors in the final days of their presidency have saved -- reserved that for their more politically sensitive pardons. Should we expect you to do that? Or would you rule that out? Thanks.
THE PRESIDENT: Okay. I appreciate the question, Gregory, because I haven’t had a chance to talk about this much and this is an effort that I’m really proud of.
It is my view, shared by Democrats and Republicans alike in many quarters, that as successful as we’ve been in reducing crime in this country, the extraordinary rate of incarceration of nonviolent offenders has created its own set of problems that are devastating. Entire communities have been ravaged where largely men, but some women, are taken out of those communities. Kids are now growing up without parents. It perpetuates a cycle of poverty and disorder in their lives. It is disproportionately young men of color that are being arrested at higher rates, charged and convicted at higher rates, and imprisoned for longer sentences.
And so ultimately, the fix on this is criminal justice reform. And I still hold out hope that the bipartisan effort that’s taking place in Congress can finish the job and we can have a criminal justice system, at least at the federal level, that is both smart on crime, effective on crime, but recognizes the need for proportionality in sentencing and the need to rehabilitate those who commit crimes.
But even as that slow process of criminal justice reform goes forward, what I wanted to see is we could reinvigorate the pardon process and commutation process that had become stalled over the course of several years -- partly because it’s politically risky. You commute somebody and they commit a crime, and the politics of it are tough. And everybody remembers the Willie Horton ad.
And so the bias I think of my predecessors and, frankly, a number of my advisors early in my presidency is, be careful about that. But I thought it was very important for us to send a clear message that we believe in the principles behind criminal justice reform even if ultimately we need legislation.
So we have focused more on commutations than we have on pardons. I would argue, Gregory, that by the time I leave office, the number of pardons that we grant will be roughly in line with what other Presidents have done. But standing up this commutations process has required a lot of effort and a lot of energy, and it’s not like we got a new slug of money to do it. So you’ve got limited resources. The primary job of the Justice Department is to prevent crime and to convict those who have committed crimes and to keep the American people safe. And that means that you’ve had this extraordinary and Herculean effort by a lot of people inside the Justice Department to go above and beyond what they’re doing to also review these petitions that have been taking place. And we’ve been able to get bar organizations around the country to participate, to kind of screen and help people apply.
And what we -- the main criteria that I’ve tried to set is if under today’s laws -- because there have been changes in how we charge nonviolent drug offenses -- if under today’s charges, their sentences would be substantially lower than the charges that they received, if they got a life sentence but a U.S. attorney or the Justice Department indicates that today they’d be likely to get 20 years and they’ve already served 25, then what we try to do is to screen through and find those individuals who have paid their debt to society, that have behaved themselves and tried to reform themselves while incarcerated, and we think have a good chance of being able to use that second chance well.
On the firearms issue, what I've done is to try to screen out folks who seem to have a propensity for violence. And so -- and these are just hypotheticals, but there may be a situation where a kid at 18 was a member of a gang, had a firearm, did not use it in the offense that he was charged in, there's no evidence that he used it in any violence offense, it's still a firearms charge in enhancement, but he didn't use it. He's now 48 -- or 38, 20 years later, and has a unblemished prison record, has gone back to school, gotten his GED, has gone through drug treatment, has the support of the original judge that presided, the support of the U.S. attorney that charged him, support of the warden, has a family that loves him. And in that situation, the fact that he had 20 years early an enhancement because he had a firearm is different than a situation where somebody has engaged in armed robbery and shot somebody. In those cases, that is still something that I'm concerned about.
Our focus really has been on people who we think were overcharged and people who we do not believe have a propensity towards violence.
And in terms of your last question about sort of last-minute pardons that are granted, the process that I put in place is not going to vary depending on how close I get to the election. So it's going to be reviewed by the pardon attorney, it will be reviewed by my White House counsel, and I'm going to, as best as I can, make these decisions based on the merits, as opposed to political considerations."