U.S.: Obama Plans To Free Scores of Nonviolent Drug Prisoners

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By Steve Elliott
Hemp News

Aides expect President Barack Obama, sometime in the coming weeks, to issue orders freeing dozens of federal prisoners locked up for nonviolent drug offenses. With the stroke of his pen, the President will likely commute more sentences at one time than has been done in half a century, since the days of LBJ.

Flexing his clemency power is part of a bigger effort by the President to correct what he sees as the excesses of the "tough on crime" crowd, where politicians threw away the key even for minor criminals, reports Peter Baker at The New York times. With many Democrats and even Republicans now admitting the nation went too far, Obama holds the power to make a difference, especially for many young minority males who are disproportionately affected by biased enforcement of the drug laws.

The total number of sentence commutations by Obama may surpass 80 in the coming weeks, but more than 30,000 federal inmates have come forward after his administration's call for clemency applications. A slow-as-molasses review process has advanced only a few of those, and just a tiny fraction have reached the President's desk for a signature.

"I think they honestly want to address some of the people who have been over-sentenced in the last 30 years," said Julie Stewart, founder and president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "I'm not sure they envisioned that it would be as complicated as it is, but it has become more complicated, whether it needs to be or not, and that's what has bogged down the process."

Republicans are also calling for changes in the criminal justice system, and the United States Sentencing Commission has revised guidelines for drug offenders, already retroactively reducing sentences for more than 9,500 inmates, nearly three-quarters of them black or Hispanic.

“It’s a time when conservatives and liberals and libertarians and lots of different people on the political spectrum” have “come together in order to focus attention on excessive sentences, the costs and the like, and the need to correct some of those excesses,” according to Neil Eggleston, the White House counsel who recommends clemency petitions to President Obama. “So I think the president sees the commutations as a piece of that entire process.”

With the clock ticking on Obama's presidency, the White House has pressured the Department of Justice to send more applicants more quickly. Eggleston told the DOJ not to interpret guidelines too narrowly, because it is up to the President to decide; if it seems like a close case, he told the Justice Department to "send it over."

The DOJ's pardon attorney, Deborah Leff, has told lawyers representing clemency candidates to hurry up and send more cases her way. "If there is one message I want you to take away today, it's this: Sooner is better," Leff said, reports Gregory Korte at USA Today. "Delaying is not helpful."

Presidential commutations reduce sentences, but unlike pardons, do not eliminate convictions or restore civil rights lost as a result of those convictions. They represent an act of presidential forgiveness.

As pointed out by Matt Agorist of the Free Thought Project on Alternet, until the undue political influence (and fat campaign contributions) of police unions, private prison corporations, alcohol and beer companies, big pharmaceutical corporations, and prison guard unions are addressed and reformed, the problem of mass incarceration will never be solved by a few commutations; those prisons will keep filling back up much, much faster that sentences can be commuted.