President Obama is preparing to make much broader use of his power to grant commutations to non-violent drug convicts who have served long sentences, Attorney General Eric Holder said in a video released Monday.
“The White House has indicated it wants to consider additional clemency applications, to restore a degree of justice, fairness, and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety,” Holder said. “The Justice Department is committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences.”
Forgive us for being underwhelmed. Like Lucy and Charlie Brown’s football in Peanuts, too many inmates have been misled by too many hollow promises from this Administration. At least the Bush White House didn’t pretend to have sympathy for plight of the Federal prisoner.
Certainly, in April 2009, the Administration promised to reduce the disparity between penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine, and ultimately, Congress lessened the disparity, but did not eliminate it. But the 2009 pledge was not just to reduce the disparity. Rather, Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer said that
This Administration is committed to reviewing criminal justice issues to ensure that our law enforcement officers and prosecutors have the tools they need to combat crime and ensure public safety, while simultaneously working to root out any unwarranted and unintended disparities in the criminal justice process that may exist.
The Administration announced then that it had established a Cabinet-level task force under Holder to redo Federal sentencing “top to bottom.” But for the change in the crack-to-powder ratio, nothing. The number of Federal prison inmates continued to rise, more mandatory minimum sentences were mandated by Congress, and President Obama himself issued fewer pardons and commutations than any president in modern history.
Five months ago, President Obama released a statement announcing eight – yeah, count ‘em – eight commutations in December. In it, he said “thousands of inmates” were in jail for longer terms than they would have received under current law. But under his Administration, the BOP has fallen far short of using its full power under the Second Chance Act, compassionate releases have been virtually impossible to obtain, and the Department of Justice has fought against more liberal interpretation of “good time” and against application of the Fair Sentencing Act to defendants who committed their offenses before the law’s effect but were sentenced after the law went into effect.
Suddenly, the President announces he has discovered his clemency power? Yeah, right. All the Obama Administration has done for existing inmates is make empty promise after empty promise, with nothing to show for it.
Even now, Administration officials are promising only vague action. “Well, I don’t think that we’d be looking for group commutation. We’d be looking for individuals who would be deserving of clemency or commutations, given the nature of their conduct, their lack of ties to violence or to drug-dealing gangs or cartels,” Attorney General Eric Holder said. “We’ve begun an initiative to identify additional clemency recipients. This is something that I know is important to the president. And we’re trying to come up with ways in which we can make individualized determinations about who should receive clemency.”
Trying to come up with ways? How about just doing it, instead of wondering how to do it? How about commuting the sentences of all inmates without an existing BOP public safety factor for violence in their offenses by, say, 50 percent. The BOP could be directed to implement it, with a single level of administrative review for people denied the commutation. It would leave the courts out of the procedure altogether.
This isn’t hard, people. We deal with inmates daily, and it angers us to see this Administration to enter its fifth year of recognizing the gross unfairness of the system while not being willing to use its constitutionally-granted powers to fix it. Dorothy could be forgiven – she didn’t know her ruby slippers could get her back to Kansas. But this Administration, headed by a former constitutional law professor, knows that it has always had the power to lessen the unfairness of the system. It’s a shame it has wrung its hands instead of acting.