As President Barack Obama prepares to sign an order setting free dozens of people incarcerated for minor drug offenses, as aides expect him to do within the next few weeks, he stands to become the first president in decades to commute so many sentences at once, The New York Times reported.
Officials told the Times that if Obama approves most of the applications for clemency he has received, more than 40 people could go free. This would double Obama’s total count of clemency grantees over his two terms, propelling it from 43 up to potentially more than 80.
Julie Stewart, founder and president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told the Times she believes the Obama administration is trying to make up for the harsh sentences for nonviolent offenses that have become commonplace in the last few decades as a result of the war on drugs.
“I think they honestly want to address some of the people who have been over-sentenced in the last 30 years,” Ms. Stewart said. “I’m not sure they envisioned that it would be as complicated as it is, but it has become more complicated, whether it needs to be or not, and that’s what has bogged down the process.”
More than 30,000 inmates have applied for clemency under the Obama administration, but only a small number of those applications now await the president’s green light, due to a difficult bureaucratic process, the Times reported.
But recent research shows that there is national bipartisan support for more forgiving policies of those guilty of nonviolent, drug-related offenses. Data from Pew Charitable Trusts shows that since 2007, legislation in the name of such efforts has seen bipartisan support in 30 states.
“Although they vary in scope and significance, these reforms have sought to prioritize prison space for serious and violent offenders while expanding alternatives to incarceration for those who can be supervised more effectively and at less expense in the community,” Pew reports.
American Civil Liberties Union data also shows that on a global scale, the United States is “the world’s largest jailer.” The United States only has 5 percent of the world’s total population, but a quarter of the world’s incarcerated population.
A large contributor to this, many say, is the “war on drugs.” Writing for Time, CNN's Fareed Zakaria notes that drug convictions increased by tenfold between 1980 and 1996. In 2012, he wrote that those convicted of drug offenses accounted for more than half of the country’s federal prisoners.
Obama told David Simon – former crime reporter and creator of "The Wire," a television show based on the Baltimore narcotics scene – in a March interview that the increase in incarcerations has affected racial minorities particularly, and the effects often go beyond the time served.
“This massive trend toward incarceration, even of non-violent drug offenders … I saw this from the perspective of a state legislator,” Obama said. “This just explosion of incarcerations, disproportionately African-American and Latino. The challenge, which you depict in your show is, folks go in at great expense to the state, many times train to become more hardened criminals while in prison, come out and are basically unemployable.”
President Lyndon Johnson commuted the sentences of 80 criminals in each of the years 1965 and 1966, according to Department of Justice data. Since then, no president has come close to granting as many commutations over an entire presidency.
In letters Obama wrote to those whose sentences he commuted in December of last year and March of this year, he said that by turning their lives around, “you will affect not only your own life, but those close to you,” the Times reported. “You will also influence, through your example, the possibility that others in your circumstances get their own second chance in the future.”