According to several White House aides, President Obama is on the verge of carrying out the largest batch of presidential pardons in decades by using federal clemency powers to commute the sentences of as many as forty nonviolent drug offenders. Mr. Obama has already commuted the sentences of thirty non-violent offenders over the past year, but many expect that with the upcoming batch of commutations, the total amount of pardons issued over the course of his presidency to surpass 80, the highest total by a president since Lyndon B. Johnson. The pardons are part of a broader push by the president to reverse the horrible effects of the failed war on drugs, destructive “tough-on-crime” policies like mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent offenders, and racist drug laws.
For decades this deadly combination of racism, politicking, and continuation of the drug war in spite of all facts has devastated many communities in the United States, and has hit African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans particularly hard. President Obama has already made a historic, if little noticed, move towards greater sense and equality in the criminal justice system by signing the Fair Sentencing Act of 2013 that eliminated the 50-to-1 disparity in sentencing standards for between crack and powdered cocaine. This distinction had been a major factor in the skyrocketing imprisonment of nonviolent drug offenders and increasing racial disparity of the American prison system, as crack cocaine is used mostly by African-Americans and the powdered form of the drug mostly by Whites. With the bill, Mr. Obama also pardoned eight prominent offenders who had been imprisoned under the former mandatory minimum rule that mandated a sentence of up 25 year in prison for possession of five grams of crack cocaine.
Now, however, Mr. Obama is expanding his effort to target the wider crisis of the American criminal justice system. The move comes on the heels of an increasingly fervent campaign by the ACLU and other groups, including the Clinton-allied Center for American Progress and non-profit advocacy groups like Families Against Mandatory Minimums and The Clemency Project to draw attention to and ultimately overturn the nation’s failed drug policies and racist system of mass incarceration. While some forty nonviolent offenders will be pardoned in the next few days, the more than 30,000 applications received from federal inmates in response to the administration’s announcement of the clemency program is a testament to the immense scale of the problem and the number of lives ruined under the failed drug war.
In order to qualify for the President’s new clemency program, which he has indicated he may seek to expand or pass on to his successor, an inmate must have served at least ten years in prison with good behavior and would have received a less stringent sentence under current drug laws. Many of those to be pardoned are serving life sentences for crimes like growth of marijuana plants with intention to distribute and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. While there is a long road ahead towards restoring equality and justice in the American criminal system, President Obama is once again demonstrating his courageous dedication to fighting for the cause of those who have had their lives taken away from them by a corrupt, racist, and wrongheaded criminal justice system.
Colin Taylor is the editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.