The New York Times reported late last week that President Obama intends to use his presidential pardon power to release “dozens” of nonviolent drug offenders. The Times described the news in glowing, hopeful terms:
Sometime in the next few weeks, aides expect President Obama to issue orders freeing dozens of federal prisoners locked up on nonviolent drug offenses. With the stroke of his pen, he will probably commute more sentences at one time than any president has in nearly half a century.
That sounds great—like a good step towards ending some of the worst excesses of drug war over-criminalization.
But here’s the problem: As the Times notes, “the total number of commutations for Mr. Obama’s presidency may surpass 80, but more than 30,000 federal inmates have come forward in response to his administration’s call for clemency applications.” All but a tiny fraction have been ignored. In fact, Obama has granted pardons and commutations at a historically low rate compared to other recent presidents.
This is despite the fact that, year after year after year after year, we’ve been told that Obama and key members of his administration are deeply concerned about mandatory minimum sentencing and unnecessary mass incarceration.
But even though reducing or eliminating sentences for nonviolent offenders has overwhelming public support—and even though we are regularly told that Obama is enjoying an active, liberated final quarter of his presidency—here once again we have the president piddling around with just a handful of releases.
Don’t get me wrong: this is great news for the people whose lives it may well transform for the better. But given the chronic state of mass imprisonment in America thanks in large part to the failed war on drugs, it is difficult to see this move as substantive rather than symbolic.
There are tens of thousands of prisoners who deserve commuted sentences—and if Obama were really as committed to drug war reform as he’s long claimed, he’d use the rightful authority of the executive branch to make it happen.