Justice

Here are President Obama's Plans for Non Violent Drug Offenders

Ever since the U.S. Sentencing Commission revised its guidelines for drug offenders last year, allowing for the retroactive reduction of sentences for approximately 9,500 inmates caught up in a criminal justice system, President Barack Obama has made clear his commitment to the exercise of clemency powers on an almost unprecedented scale for dozens of nonviolent drug offenders currently behind bars.

Over the past eight months, Obama has commuted the sentences of 30 drug-related offenders, and White House aides expect the president will continue this trend in the coming weeks, pending an application review process that involves multiple federal agencies, including the U.S. Justice Department.

"With the stroke of his pen, he will probably commute more sentences at one time than any president has in nearly half a century," The New York Times' Peter Baker reports.

The Constitution provides for the act of presidential forgiveness, which would grant eligible applicants clemency for federal crimes they committed under years of tougher sentencing laws. Former President Bill Clinton made sweeping use of the pardon system in his last day in office, effectively wiping out the sentences of 36 inmates by way of the executive order. But in general, this form of clemency has been steadily declining.

"Ronald Reagan commuted only 18 sentences in eight years in office, while George W. Bush just 11 in the same amount of time," Baker notes. "The elder Mr. Bush commuted three sentences in his four years."

Now well into his second term, Obama has increased the total number of clemency orders to 43, mostly for nonviolent drug offenders, many of whom are young Black and Hispanic offenders. If White House sources are confirmed, that number is expected to rise dramatically—perhaps doubling clemency orders under the Obama administration. That would put Obama's commutation rate above that of even Lyndon B. Johnson, who pardoned 80 convicted criminals in 1966.

In an exclusive interview with The Huffington Post in March, reporter Ryan Reilly pressed the president on the issue: "On pardons, you've given out less pardons than your predecessors. Why?" Obama's answer revealed some of the bureaucratic hurdles associated with the clemency process, but he also suggested that reforms to that process would make it easier to assess and expedite applications in a way that's consistent with new measures put in place throughout the criminal justice system.

According to Reilly, "Obama said he had granted clemency so infrequently because of problems in the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney. The former head of that office, who was appointed during the George W. Bush administration, resigned in April amid criticism from criminal justice advocates."