Home > civil liberties, criminal justice, politics > President Obama’s Use of the Pardon Power

President Obama’s Use of the Pardon Power

Since winning the 2008 election, President Obama has been rather stingy when exercising his Article II section 2 power to issue pardons. And when he does use the power constitutionally granted to him, like the other day, he pardons people who already served their sentences.

But mixed into the report announcing the five pardons was also the announcement of the commutation of a sentence for a real live person serving prison time. While it’s nice to see Obama show some mercy by commuting the 22-year sentence handed down to Eugenia Marie Jennings in 2001 for distributing cocaine, this decision to commute the sentence of someone actively serving time in prison is an outlier rather than the norm.

In light of all this, I’m in complete agreement with Eric Sterling when he takes Obama to task for failing to grant reprieve’s and pardon’s to those serving prison time unjustly:

Sadly, while Obama freely uses his Article II, section 2 power as Commander in Chief (for example, to bomb Pakistan, Libya, or Yemen without explicit authority from Congress), he uses his Article II, section 2 power to correct injustice with a stinginess that is either uncaring or cowardly.

In August 2010, Congress sent Obama the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 to tweak the mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine enacted in the frenzy after Len Bias died from cocaine in the summer of 1986. Congress recognized that the sentences that had been imposed for the previous 25 years were unjustly long. Obama signed the bill. Tens of thousands of people are serving these unjustly long sentences for crack and other drugs.

There are now 200,000 people serving sentences in federal prison, the largest prison system in the free world. Half of them are serving drug sentences. Most of them are serving mandatory minimum sentences that most judges believe are “manifestly unjust.” Many of them have already served decades in prison — very long sentences — and yet are facing decades, or even a life time, for being small-scale dealers but sentenced to king-pin sentences because of Congress’s hasty, numerical blunders in 1986. (I was the counsel to the House Judiciary Committee who processed that legislation. I was at the table and on the floor of the House when these laws were written and passed. I know exactly how badly they were written and how wrong they are!)

In three years in office, Obama has been able to find one person, only one person, in that 100,000 who he thought deserved a shorter sentence. Obama knows about the injustices. He is a former law professor. He cosponsored legislation as a Senator to fix these mandatory minimums. Either he now simply doesn’t care to do anything about it, or he is afraid of the potential that someone he might free might commit another crime and it will be turned into a “Willie Horton” moment. To protect his political butt, Obama seems to be perfectly prepared to tolerate injustice on a massive scale. For shame!

h/t Sentencing Law and Policy

Image via the grio

  1. May 15, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    A really interesting take on how Obama is using his pardoning power.


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