With Obama Leaving Office, What Will Happen To Nonviolent Offenders Awaiting Clemency?

By Seth Ferranti 10/26/16

With over 13,000 petitions for clemency still pending, many worry that it might be too late to get their commutations granted.

With Obama Leaving Office, What Will Happen To Nonviolent Offenders Awaiting Clemency?

Over the last year, President Obama has been granting over-sentenced, nonviolent federal offenders clemency at an unprecedented rate. With the last round of 102 commutations in early October, the president has now commuted the sentences of 774 inmates—most of them drug offenders—more than his 11 predecessors combined.

Obama has certainly made clemency a priority, but in reality there remains tens of thousands of federal prisoners that deserve a sentence reduction. Many of the prisoners already granted clemency have similar cases to those still serving time, but time is running out. 

Hillary Clinton, who has a rocky past with her controversial criminal justice stance back when Bill Clinton was in office, has not made any indications that she will keep granting clemencies at Obama’s rate. Donald Trump has criticized commutations, going so far as to call the nonviolent offenders that have been released "bad dudes," according to Business Insider.

"The pressure is incredible, and it's increasing exponentially," Amy Povah, the founder of CAN-DO, a nonprofit that advocates for clemency applicants, told Business Insider. "People are starting to panic.”

Povah, who was given a “once in a lifetime” opportunity when she was granted clemency by Bill Clinton in 2000, is in daily contact with thousands of prisoners through CAN-DO. She knows what it feels like to sit in prison, waiting for the outside world to wake up and start paying attention. She got her second chance, as did Tim Tyler, but nonviolent lifers like Robert Rosso are still in.

“I was waiting to hear back from them and hoping that Obama looked at my case and let me out, or at least gave me a date like he has for these other guys,” Rosso, who is serving a life sentence for drugs, tells The Fix. “But my clemency was denied."

When the Clemency Project was announced in 2014, the pardon office received tens of thousands of petitions. They cut down 33,000 applications to 1,700 they deemed viable. Currently 13,275 petitions remain pending, but Rosso’s isn't one of them. He has to reapply or wait for some other law to pass in Congress to give him some relief. 

“I’ll reapply, but with Obama going out it might be too late for me,” Rosso says. "But I’ll never give up hope and I’ll keep fighting to get a pardon or clemency."

With over 3,000 nonviolent lifers in prison in the U.S., new legislation has to be drafted and passed to right the wrongs of the drug war and start the process of ending mass incarceration.

As it stands, right now some prisoners are in effect hitting the lottery with their well-deserved commutations from Obama—but tens of thousands of others, like Rosso, are stuck in prison, over-sentenced, with no way to get released. 

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After landing on the US Marshals Top-15 Most Wanted list and being sentenced to a 25 year sentence in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent LSD offense, Seth built a writing and journalism career from his cell block. His raw portrayals of prison life and crack era gangsters graced the pages of Don DivaHoopshype and VICE. From prison he established Gorilla Convict, a true-crime publisher and website that documents the stories that the mainstream media can’t get with books like Prison Stories and Street Legends. His story has been covered by The Washington PostThe Washington Times, and Rolling Stone.

Since his release in 2015 he’s worked hard to launch GR1ND Studios, where true crime and comics clash. GR1ND Studios is bringing variety to the comic shelf by way of the American underground. These groundbreaking graphic novels tell the true story of prohibition-era mobsters, inner-city drug lords, and suburban drug dealers. Seth is currently working out of St. Louis, Missouri, writing for The FixVICEOZY, Daily Beast, and Penthouse and moving into the world of film. Check out his first short, Easter Bunny Assassin at sethferranti.com. You can find Seth on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.