A year ago, The Washington Post and ProPublica reported that the Obama administration was set to reverse its poor record on clemency. At the time, President Obama was coming under growing pressure from sentencing law experts, sentencing reform groups, and civil rights organizations for granting fewer commutations and pardons than any president in modern history. Frustration was high because, in 2008, then-candidate Obama had railed against lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders, a growing population within the federal prison system.
In an apparent attempt to address this frustration as Election Day 2012 approached, an unnamed administration official told the Post-ProPublica, "There will be 76 days between the election and inauguration for the president to exercise his [clemency] power." Advisers said he planned to act whether he won or lost the election.
It didn't happen. Since winning reelection, President Obama has not commuted a single sentence. Instead, during the first nine months of fiscal year 2013, the president has denied 2,232 requests for commutation, more than any other president in history denied in a single year.
Last week, the Justice Department sent a letter to the U.S. Sentencing Commission warning that the growing federal prison population was causing severe budgetary problems. The Department said policymakers were confronted with a stark choice: either "reduce the prison population and prison spending" or be prepared for "fewer prosecutors to bring charges, fewer agents to investigate federal crimes, less support to state and local criminal justice partners, less support for treatment, prevention and intervention programs, and cuts along a range of other criminal justice priorities."
Rather than jeopardize public safety by cutting investigators and prosecutors, the Department recommended that the Sentencing Commission (and Congress) reduce drug penalties for low-level offenders and "focus severe penalties on serious and repeat drug traffickers." The question our country faces, the Department wrote, is "how will those involved in crime policy ensure that every dollar invested in public safety is spent in the most productive way possible?"
If the administration wants to make certain every dollar of our nation's public safety budget is spent productively, as it should, President Obama should begin to exercise his executive clemency authority. For starters, he might look at the 2,000 individuals serving sentences of life without parole for drug crimes. He also should look at the 8,800 individuals serving lengthy crack cocaine sentences that were based on a formula that was repudiated by Congress when it passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.
Thirty years of automatic, lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders has been a major contributor to the Justice Department's prison problem. The pardon power can't fix 30 years of flawed policy, but it can provide meaningful -- and best of all, immediate -- relief to thousands who have already served long sentences and who pose no threat to public safety. It has been a year since the White House said it would get moving on clemency. We're still waiting.