President Obama is set to pardon and/or commute to a record number of nonviolent drug offenders incarcerated under mandatory minimum sentencing laws. The U. S. Constitution empowers the president to “grant pardons for offenses against the United States” and to commute federal sentences. A pardon forgives the offender and erases all outstanding legal liabilities for that offense. A commutation, on the other hand, reduces the sentence for an offense but does not erase the conviction or restore civil rights.
Most if not all of those pardons/commutations are now-popular reactions to our country’s decades-old “War on Drugs.” The United States’ “War on Drugs” officially began with a 1971 declaration by President Richard Nixon. An important aspect of this “War” was very tough mandatory sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses.
In the ensuing decades, Americans on both political sides of the aisle have concluded that extended minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses is expensive, unduly punitive and ultimately ineffective; accordingly, bipartisan efforts have arisen to counteract minimum sentencing laws. For example, the liberal Center for American Progress and the conservative Koch Industries united in the cause of justice reform, including reduced sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
The powerful bipartisan push for reform has succeeded in some respects. In 2014, for example, the U. S. Sentencing Commission revised its guidelines for drug offenders, receiving 60,000+ communications from legislators, judges, academics and others overwhelmingly supporting sentence reductions. As a result of the revisions, more than 9,000 nonviolent drug offenders received reduced sentences.
Despite the revisions, 99,000+ individuals still incarcerated for drug offenses and 75,000+ of those serving mandatory minimum sentences; consequently, bipartisan forces have increasingly supported the use of the presidential pardon or commutation for nonviolent drug offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences.
The presidential pardons/commutations are not granted willy-nilly; rather, clemency seems aimed at a certain type of offender: he/she tends to be nonviolent and well-behaved, having served 10+ years of his/her sentence and would be eligible for a shorter sentence under the revised sentencing rules. In response to bipartisan and presidential willingness, clemency projects have arisen. The most notable is “Clemency Project 2014,” involving the work 50+ law firms, 20+ law schools and 1,500+ lawyers, who have screened 13,000+ inmate applications and submitted approximately 50 of those applications to the White House. In addition, the president has received 6,000+ applications from other sources.
The presidential pardon, made so unpopular by Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard M. Nixon, George H.W. Bush’s pardon of the Iran-Contra participants, and Bill Clinton’s pardon of Mark Rich, is now a popular method of counteracting some expensive mistakes of our “War on Drugs.”
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