Long gone are the days when proponents of criminal justice reform lamented that Obama was the stingiest president in modern history in exercising his clemency powers.
Obama on Wednesday announced that he was shortening the sentences of 214 federal prisoners. That is the highest one-day total ever, according to political scientist P.S. Ruckman Jr., who tracks presidential commutations. The previous record occurred on July 26, 1935, when Franklin Roosevelt commuted 151 for immigration-related sentences.
“I hope they’ve all gone through prison menopause, because if they haven’t, they risk bringing gang ties back into their communities.”
Obama has now commuted the sentences of 562 prisoners, more than the previous nine presidents combined and the most of any president since Calvin Coolidge.
“Too many men and women end up in a criminal justice system that serves up excessive punishments, especially for nonviolent drug offenses,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
Dennis Boyd, executive director of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, said it was too soon to comment on the latest round of clemencies.
“It’s larger than what’s been done by the president in the past, but we haven’t had any discussion about it,” he said.
Heather Mac Donald, a criminologist with the Manhattan Institute, said she does not know enough about the individual cases to assess the specifics.
“I hope they’ve all gone through prison menopause, because if they haven’t, they risk bringing gang ties back into their communities,” she said. “A commutation is, to a certain extent, a revision of judicial procedures and the judgment of a judge and, possibly, a jury.”
[lz_table title=”Most Clemencies on a Single Day” source=”Pardonpower.com”]President,Date,Number
The commutations announced Wednesday include prisoners convicted across the country. Most involved drug offenses; 67 were serving life in prison. Thirty-five recipients will have to serve two more years in prison because they need more time for rehabilitation, according to White House officials.
The oldest case dates to 1989, when a judge sentenced Richard L. Reser, of Sedgwick, Kanas, to 40 years in prison for dealing methamphetamine and a firearms possession. He will get out of prison on Dec. 1. According to court records, his sentence was so long because he was labeled a “career criminal,” due to his lengthy record.
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Although the White House described the recipients as “low level” and “nonviolent,” court records indicate many were extensively involved in drug trafficking networks, and some demonstrated a profound contempt for the law. Take Asher Adkins, an Indiana man who was serving a 52-year sentence for multiple counts of distribution of methamphetamine and two counts of using a firearm during a drug trafficking crime.
According to court records, Adkins and a co-conspirator made as many as 40 trips to California beginning in 1989 to buy large quantities of meth. Adkins sold those drugs to street-level drug dealers. Adkins carried guns because the trips were “risky business” — another drug dealer testified that Adkins pulled out a gun from under his truck seat and showed it to him.
Adkins absconded before the last day of his trial in 1993 and remained a fugitive until 1999. A jury had convicted him in absentia, and a judge sentenced him after his apprehension.
Critics of Wednesday’s commutations argued that the president is improperly downplaying the severity of the crimes.
“You have a president hellbent on releasing federal convicts,” said Michael Cutler, a retired immigration agent who served on a federal drug task force in New York. “To be prosecuted in federal court, you have to reach a certain level … They’re not going to put a guy in jail because of three joints in his back pocket.”
Cutler said he agrees long prison sentences are inappropriate for people who truly are low-level drug felons, defendants who are more addicts than profiteers.
“But if you’re talking about people who were selling drugs to other people, now we’re in a different ballpark,” he said.
White House counsel Neil Eggleston wrote in a blog post that he expects Obama will continue to grant clemency “in a historic and inspiring fashion.” He called on lawmakers to pass criminal justice reform that has been stalled. The legislative effort, which would reduce penalties for drug offenses and some other crimes, has support from both sides of the aisle.
“That is why action from Congress is so important,” he wrote. “While we continue to work to act on as many clemency applications as possible, only legislation can bring about lasting change to the federal system.”
For his part, Obama vowed in his Facebook post that he is not done yet and echoed Eggleston’s call for legislative action.
“We need Congress to pass meaningful federal sentencing reform that will allow us to more effectively use taxpayer dollars to protect the public,” he said.
If Obama does want to exercise his clemency powers again, he has plenty of cases from which to choose. New York University School of Law’s Clemency Resources Center estimates that about 1,500 of the more than 11,000 pending clemency applications meet the criteria set out by the administration in 2014.
Mac Donald, the Manhattan Institute fellow, said Obama may have felt pressure from liberal interest groups to step up his rate of commutations.
“He’s obviously feeling like this is his last year and he wants to make a statement about criminal justice reform,” she said.