White House Scrambles To Grant Clemencies Before Obama’s Term Ends

By Victoria Kim 03/17/16

The White House is struggling to process a major backlog of applications before the clemency initiative ends next January. 

White House Scrambles To Grant Clemencies Before Obama’s Term Ends
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The administration is running out of time. Though President Obama is expected to grant more clemencies to federal inmates in the coming weeks, critics note that the administration is not working fast enough.

The Washington Post reported last Friday that the president, who has so far commuted the sentences of 187 federal inmates, will do the same for a new group of drug offenders

The administration launched the criminal justice initiative in 2014, which Reuters called the “most ambitious clemency program in 40 years.” The goal of the initiative was to fast-track the clemency process, which is run by the Office of the Pardon Attorney. 

Thousands of incarcerated drug offenders and other convicts were invited to apply for early release under the program. Prisoners had to meet a number of requisites to qualify—only those who served at least 10 years of their sentence, are a non-violent offender, and demonstrated good conduct, among other requirements, can be granted a pardon or commuted sentence. 

"It's encouraging that the president will be granting some additional number of clemencies in the weeks ahead," Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, tells The Fix. "Many of us had been disappointed at how few clemencies were granted during his first term, but the White House now seems poised to use this power much more expansively."

The Clemency Project, a group of criminal defense and non-profit lawyers, teamed up with the Justice Department to serve as a filter for the Office of the Pardon Attorney, taking on the task of reviewing incoming applications. They received more than 30,000 requests by 2015.

The administration is facing a huge backlog of applications since the start of the program, Reuters reported Monday. Thousands of clemency petitions—9,115 according to the Post—have yet to be reviewed. During his time in office, Obama has commuted the sentences of 187 prisoners, a tiny fraction of the pending petitions. There are 2.2 million people behind bars in the U.S.

The initiative will automatically expire at the end of Obama’s term in January 2017, which has the administration scrambling to make a decision on all applications before then.

In the meantime, the prisoners whose applications were approved will walk free. Ramona Brant, a mother-of-two who received a life sentence in 1995 for a first-time drug charge, has already been released on Feb. 1. Eric Orington, who The Fix recently interviewed, also had his sentence commuted. Orington had been convicted of possession with intent to distribute 260 grams of crack cocaine in 1994, and received a mandatory life sentence without possibility of release. He is expected to be released in April.

Over 3,200 federal prisoners in the U.S. are serving life sentences (without parole) for non-violent and often petty offenses—many of them thanks to the harshly punitive drug war. Seventy-nine percent of the non-violent offenders serving life sentences were convicted of non-violent drug crimes, the ACLU revealed in a 2013 report. The administration has a long way to go to get through all the applications. It's a small step toward a big change.

"We've been very encouraged by the president elevating criminal justice reform as a high priority issue over the past year," Mauer tells The Fix. "Along with growing bipartisan support in Congress, we hope this will lead to passage of substantial sentencing reform legislation this session."

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr