Two years ago, the Obama administration commenced an effort to grant clemency to federal non-violent drug offenders who would have received shorter prison sentences had they been sentenced under subsequently revised advisory sentencing guidelines. Last week, President Obama granted clemency to 111 federal inmates, 35 of whom originally received life sentences. Earlier in August, Obama granted clemency to 214 similarly situated federal inmates. August’s clemency grants raises his total number of commutations to 673 – more than the past 10 presidents combined.
The administration is attempting to address a substantial number of clemency petitions in its final months. This effort is apparently angering several Republicans in the House and Senate; however, and given the fact that he is finishing his second term, Washington insiders believe that Obama couldn’t care less. Obama is, in fact, the first sitting US President to tour a prison facility, having visited El Reno FCI in Oklahoma last year where he, among other things, actually met with inmates. He has also had lunch with clemency recipients. All indications are that he truly believes in this and, given the end of his tenure, can act without fear of major political repercussions.
As discussed previously on this blog, the clemency initiative was intended to address the sentences of non-violent offenders sentenced under now-amended sentencing guidelines that previously set longer sentences for their particular offenses. The problem that the administration faces is that several thousand federal inmates, including white collar defendants, defendants convicted of violent offenses and sex offenders, all applied for clemency, thereby flooding the program with petitions.
The fact that the administration favors granting clemency to certain inmates does not mean that the process is simple. Attorneys at the Justice Department review each petition carefully, considering the original offense and the inmate’s prison record. The Department then makes a recommendation to the President concerning the treatment the petition should receive. Obama then makes the final decision as to whether to grant or deny clemency. Department representatives continue to insist that they are undaunted by the number of clemency petitions that still have to be reviewed and acted upon before the President leaves office. Drug offender petitions are receiving priority, and the Department is confident that it will be able to review and submit all of the petitions in drug-related cases in time.
Additionally, all indications are that Obama believes in granting clemency only to deserving inmates. It is said that he reviews each request on an individual basis. Administration officials have stated that there is no quota to reach. The focus is, instead, on clemency petitions that are worthy and have merit. Thus, the program is not a “get-out-of-jail-free” card.
The administration’s program is admirable because it recognizes that there are many non-violent drug offenders in our prisons who do not belong there for the full length of their original sentence. Keeping these people incarcerated involves a huge expenditure of resources, but no return on the investment. One problem with the program is that it may not go far enough. Is anything being done for these inmates to help them re-integrate into society upon release? Re-integration is a daunting task, particularly if the inmate has already served a relatively long term, and/or if the inmate lacks a support network to assist in obtaining employment, housing, and other necessities. Released inmates lacking such support are likely to incur new charges and, eventually, be returned to custody. Releasing inmates from custody accomplishes little if it ultimately sets them up for failure on the outside.
New Brunswick criminal defense attorney James S. Friedman represents adult criminal defendants in state and federal criminal cases in all courts in New Jersey and New York City. If you have a criminal case in the New Jersey Superior Court, the New York City Criminal Court, or the United States District Court, call Mr. Friedman to discuss your defense strategy and options.