Obama Prison Break Continues: Nearing 1,000 Commutations

Latest clemency round shortens sentences for 98 more prisoners, including 19 convicted of gun crimes

President Obama on Thursday pushed ahead with his aggressive use of presidential clemency powers, announcing that he was reducing sentences for another 98 convicted felons — including 42 who were serving life prison terms.

In addition, 19 of the prisoners were serving time for firearms offenses.

Obama cuts prison time for “the very people you would think you’d most want to keep off the streets in the middle of a violent crime wave.”

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The move was not surprising. It is the fourth time since August that Obama has granted clemency to prisoners, and his administration has vowed to continue that process as he winds up his presidency. He has now granted corrections relief to 872 people, including 688 this year alone.

As with previous rounds, the reduced punishment drew criticism from law enforcement authorities. Steve Cook, president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, said the prisoners who got breaks Thursday are big-time drug dealers and dangerous criminals: “the very people you would think you’d most want to keep off the streets in the middle of a violent crime wave.”

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Although crime remains well below its peak in the 1990s, homicides spiked dramatically across the country last year, particularly in some of America’s biggest cities.

William Otis, an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University and a former counselor to the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration under George W. Bush, also pointed out that some of the worst drug dealers are returning to society at the very time when even the White House acknowledges the country is in the throes of an opioid and heroin addiction crisis.

Otis said the powers of pardon and clemency are absolute. Neither Congress nor the courts can second-guess a president’s decision. Otis noted that almost every president has exercised that power judiciously, to correct unusual mistakes in the criminal justice system.

“The difference with Obama … is that they are obviously not being given for the traditional reasons,” he said.

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Otis said Obama is using the power as a proxy for legislative action Congress has not taken to reduce drug penalties. He noted that Obama has granted more commutations than his 11 predecessors combined.

“There’s no reasonable way to think of that other than over-the-top extremism,” he said.

Administration critics argue that contrary to the popular image of addicts and small-time drug dealers languishing behind bars for decades, federal prisons are filled with the worst of the worst — more so now after the administration has granted so many clemency petitions already.

One of the inmates who got a break Thursday was Bobby Earl Lee, who was serving life in prison for possession with intent to distribute cocaine and possession of a firearm during a drug trafficking crime. His father, Robert Earl “Wonderman” Lee, was the “kingpin” of a multi-million-dollar cocaine ring, according to the Tamp Bay Times. He brother, Roy Larry Lee, was the beneficiary of an earlier round of clemencies last year.

At one time, Wonderman Lee owned a car wash and 30 vehicles, including a limousine and a semi-trailer truck.

The Times reported that law enforcement officials took down the enterprise in “Operation Irongate,” named for the gate outside family’s home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

The article quoted Mike Celona, a former St. Petersburg police officer who worked the neighborhood at the time: “Wonderman, he and his family, they’re the ones who were responsible for introducing crack cocaine basically to the west coast of Florida.”

The president won praise from criminal justice reform advocates, who argue that federal sentencing laws are too harsh. Jackson Sloan, national director of the advocacy group #cut50, urged the president to keep going. He lamented that “time is running out” for prisoners whose petitions were neither denied nor granted.

“While today’s announcement means some families will be made whole, many more petitioners were denied — the vast majority denied with no explanation,” he said in a prepared statement. “The clemency process is sorely lacking in transparency — with little regard for the emotional impact these decisions have on individuals and their families.”

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The transparency issue is one on which Sloan and Cook can both agree. Cook has said that the administration seeks input from prosecutors and the sentencing judges outside of public view.

Cook said his organization rejects the administration’s characterization of large-scale drug dealing as nonviolent — particularly dealers convicted of using guns as part of drug trafficking. They are dangerous even if they were not convicted of actually pulling the trigger.

“The reason drug dealers carry firearms is because they intend to use them,” he said.

Cook said it also is a mistake to downplay the risk posed by felons convicted of possessing firearms. There is a reason why Congress outlaws felons from having guns, he said. He noted that prosecutors do not bring federal charges against all felons arrested with guns — only the most dangerous or those with the worst criminal histories.

Even as Obama continues to lighten punishment for convicted criminals — including those who committed gun crimes — he has not pulled back from his advocacy of gun control measures that primarily would target law-abiding citizens.

“It does seem inconsistent to say there should be limitations — and significant limitations — placed on good and honest citizens who are protecting themselves and give leniency to drug dealers who are arming themselves to commit violence,” Cook said. “The inconsistency could not be more glaring.”

Note: An earlier version of this story inadvertently identified Bobby Earl Lee as Robert Earl Lee.

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