Pubdate: Thu, 01 Sep 2016
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2016 Hearst Communications Inc.
Author: Debra J. Saunders


On Tuesday, President Obama commuted the sentences of 111 federal 
drug offenders.

In his first term, Obama endured the sting of critics like me who 
called him one of the stingiest modern presidents when it comes to 
the presidential pardon power.

In his second term, Obama is making up for lost time. With 673 
commutations , the Washington Post reports , Obama has approached 
690, the number of commutations issued by the previous 11 presidents.

Obama deserves credit for doing the right thing.

The federal mandatory minimum sentencing system - the bastard child 
of Washington's ill-conceived war on drugs - was supposed to put drug 
kingpins away for long sentences.

But the system lacks proportion, and too often has been used to put 
away low-level and nonviolent drug offenders for decades - 232 Obama 
commutation recipients were serving sentences of life without parole.

The pardon power was put in the U.S. Constitution in part to allow 
the president to correct for this brand of institutional overkill.

In his first years in office, I needled Obama for his lack of mercy. 
So now when he announces a big batch of commutations, I often hear 
from readers challenging me to praise the president for using his pardon power.

When Obama began to turn on the spigot in 2013, I did so. As he has 
stepped up his efforts, I have been a little conflicted. On the one 
hand, I think it is great that Obama is bestowing mercy, as I have no 
doubt that thousands of the 193,070 federal inmates are serving 
sentences that far outweigh their crimes. On the other hand, I fear 
that the sheer volume and velocity of this effort could doom this 
exercise to a bad ending.

The president changed his clemency criteria to allow for the early 
release of drug offenders also charged for firearms possession. As 
Obama said recently, "There may be a situation where a kid at 18 was 
a member of a gang, had a firearm, did not use it in the offense that 
he was charged in, there's no evidence that he used it in any 
violence offense." The president is right on principle but, as his 
administration tries to process some 11,000 applications before he 
exits, the looming deadline expands the opportunity to make mistakes 
by releasing someone who is violent.

Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums sees safeguards. 
Recipients take seriously their responsibility not to make Obama look 
bad. Also, some 2016 commutations come with strings - recipients have 
to spend time in halfway houses or stick with drug treatment 
programs. Some commutations reduce long sentences, but the inmate 
still must remain in prison for some time. Former pardon attorney 
Margaret Love fears that with this rushed schedule, the 
administration will turn down inmates who deserve commutations.

I'm with Pardon Power blogger P.S. Ruckman Jr., who has seen 
last-minute pardons "do more damage long term." Think of Bill 
Clinton's 140 out-the-door-clemency grants . Ruckman fears that if 
some inmates are not well vetted - as happens with a rush job - and 
they reoffend in headline-making ways, "the next president who comes 
in will be gun shy" with the pardon power.

Me, I am thrilled Obama is using his pardon power, and crossing my 
fingers he is using it well.
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