Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-N.J.) presidential campaign on Thursday unveiled a plan that would grant clemency and early release to thousands of federal drug offenders “serving unjust and excessive sentences.”
Under the plan, Booker would “initiate” the clemency process for roughly 17,000 federal prisoners on his first day in office and set up a bipartisan panel that would “operate with a presumption of a recommendation of clemency,” though screen out certain individuals who may “pose a threat to public safety” based on the details of their cases or their prison history.
Booker’s plan, the Restoring Justice Initiative, focuses on three categories of prisoners: those serving primarily for marijuana charges; those who would have had shorter sentences if they were sentenced after the passage of the First Step Act, a law signed by President Donald Trump that offers some limited prison reforms and gives federal prisoners a chance to earn more days off for good behavior each year; and those who have longer sentences due to the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.
“The War on Drugs has been a war on people, tearing families apart, ruining lives, and disproportionately affecting people of color and low-income individuals — all without making us safer,” Booker said in a statement. “As president, I will act immediately to right these wrongs, starting by initiating a clemency process for thousands of nonviolent drug offenders who have been handed unjust sentences by their government.”
President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of more than 1,700 federal prisoners over the course of his presidency. But Obama’s clemency initiative, which worked through the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, faced some bureaucratic hurdles that blunted its impact. Booker’s plan includes the formation of an executive clemency panel, which is intended to “revamp and streamline the clemency process.” That panel, set up by the Office of the White House Counsel, would largely remove DOJ’s Office of the Pardon Attorney from the process.
The Restorative Justice Initiative is the latest of Booker’s criminal justice reform policies. Last year, he sponsored the First Step Act, which passed the Senate in 2018 on a vote of 87-12. In March, Booker introduced the Next Step Act, which tackles police violence and racial profiling, reintegration for former prisoners and sentencing disparities.
For Booker, one of three black senators, the issue of criminal justice reform is personal. In an interview with BlacKkKlansman director Spike Lee last fall, Booker talked about his own experience being racially profiled while he was a student at Stanford University.
“I remember at Stanford just being pulled over surrounded by numerous cops all around my car, screaming at me,” he said.
“And then after it was all over, sitting there sort of holding my steering wheel, shaking, worrying that I was going to get … God knows what — anywhere from arrested to shot,” he added. “I remember taking my hand off the steering wheel once to scratch my head, or something like that, and just getting screamed at.”
Trump has used clemency in a much more limited capacity than his predecessor, often using the power when celebrities lobby him to do so or based on segments he has seen on Fox News. His pardons have also circumvented the traditional process through the Justice Department.