Genuine Concern or Approval Rating Ploy?
Back when President Obama was just a humble civil rights law professor, he made grandiose claims of wanting to reform the racially biased criminal-justice system. Yet once he had the authority to rectify those wrongs, he waited well into his first term as president to take any action. In 2010 he signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The five-year minimum sentence for those in possession of crack cocaine was viewed by many as a racially biased stipulation, and courts were already in the process of reducing the sentencing disparity prior to the bill’s passage.
For a president that’s made it clear he enjoys any opportunity to bypass Congress, he has done little to take full advantage of his only unrestricted executive power. Pardoning felons and reducing sentences has been at the bottom of his “to-do” list. Vanita Gupta, deputy legal director of the ACLU, stated Obama’s clemency record was “abysmal.” He’s only pardoned 22 people, while only commuting one prisoner’s sentence. No modern president has been as stingy with their clemency powers. According to ProPublica, you had a 1 in 3 chance of being pardoned by Reagan, and 1 in 8 of being pardoned by Clinton. With Barack Obama, you have a 1 in 50 chance of receiving a pardon.
The fact that Obama is a shameless hypocrite shouldn’t surprise anyone who has read an article in the past six years. Yet it appears with only two years (thank God) left in his presidency, he may be attempting to actually fulfill a long overdue obligation.
Pardon Attorney Ronal Rodgers is also to blame for the staggering decline in pardons. His branch of the Justice Department recommended the White House deny nearly every single petition for a pardon or a reduced sentence. Obama made no attempt to fix this broken system, even though he was well aware of it.
One person who did make an effort to help prisoners was Gregory Craig, Obama’s now former top lawyer. Yet after Craig suggested a more aggressive use of the clemency power, as well as separating the pardon attorney’s office from the DOJ, no one took his reforms seriously. He left the White House in 2009.
Sam Morison, a staffer in the pardon attorney’s office, also attempted to blow the whistle on the “total collapse of the pardon advisory process” back in 2009. Morison said the urge to deny petitions was so ingrained at the office that Obama would never be effectively able to use his pardon power. No one replied to his memo then, but it appears that Obama is finally getting the message. Rodgers has been left out of meetings concerning granting pardons to those who aren’t wealthy or well-connected.
“Clemency Project 2014” has already excited non-violent drug offenders languishing in prison, some for decades. President Obama could grant clemency to “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of drug offenders as part of the project, a senior administration official said Monday. To meet this influx of requests, the DOJ is hiring new personnel to assist with the clemencies people are now expecting Obama to grant.