Pubdate: Wed, 07 Dec 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company


The Constitution gives presidents nearly unlimited authority to grant
pardons and commute sentences - decisions that no future
administration can reverse. Unfortunately, for most of his presidency,
Barack Obama treated mercy as an afterthought. Even as thousands of
men and women endured outrageously long sentences for low-level,
nonviolent drug offenses as a result of the nation's misguided drug
war, Mr. Obama granted relief to only a tiny handful.

In the last two years, however, Mr. Obama has changed course. In 2014
he directed the Justice Department to systematically review cases of
people serving out sentences that would be far shorter had they been
convicted under new, more lenient sentencing laws.

While that clemency process has moved far too slowly - beset by both
administrative obstacles and bureaucratic resistance - grants have
been accelerating throughout 2016. Mr. Obama has now shortened or
ended the sentences of more than 1,000 prisoners, and he will most
likely be the first president since Lyndon Johnson to leave office
with a smaller federal prison population than he inherited.

There are thousands more people deserving of release, but their
prospects under the next administration don't look good.
President-elect Donald Trump ran on a "law and order" platform that
sounded a lot like the punitive approach that led to exploding prison
populations in the first place. His choice for attorney general,
Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, has fiercely opposed criminal
sentencing reform and called Mr. Obama's grants of clemency an abuse
of power.

In other words, for many federal inmates, their last hope lies in Mr.
Obama's hands.

Up to now, the president has reviewed clemency requests on a
case-by-case basis. With only weeks left in office, Mr. Obama should
consider a bolder approach: blanket commutations for those inmates
still serving time under an old law that punished possession or sale
of crack cocaine far more harshly than powder cocaine - a meaningless
distinction that sent disproportionate numbers of young black and
Latino men to prison for decades.

Congress significantly reduced that disparity in 2010 (which Mr.
Sessions supported), but did not apply the sentence reduction to
people already in prison. Several thousand remain behind bars, and
they're no less deserving of mercy just because their crimes occurred
before 2010. Mr. Obama could order the release of most of these people
right now. If he is worried about some committing new crimes, he could
prioritize those who prison officials have already determined pose the
lowest risk of violence. Or Mr. Obama could commute their sentences to
what they would have received under the current law. The Justice
Department says it will review all clemency petitions received before
Sept. 1 from drug offenders before Mr. Obama leaves office.

The idea of blanket commutations is being pushed by a coalition of
criminal-justice reform advocates, including former judges and
prosecutors, who urged the president in a letter last week to use his
clemency power aggressively while he still can. The group called for
the release of thousands more nonviolent offenders in low-risk
categories, including elderly inmates, who are the least likely of all
to commit new crimes, and those with convictions for drugs other than
crack. The coalition argues that it is possible to make these grants
in the short time remaining, if the administration is committed to
getting it done.

Mr. Trump may well dismantle a lot of Mr. Obama's legacy, but he can't
touch grants of clemency. Mr. Obama has taken important steps toward
unwinding the decades-long imprisonment binge. With much of that
progress now at risk, he has only a few weeks left to ensure a measure
of justice and mercy for thousands of people.
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