Somewhat lost in the run-up to Labor Day weekend and wall-to-wall media coverage of the Clinton and Trump campaigns, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 111 federal prisoners on August 30. This builds on what has quietly become one of Obama’s most significant end-of-term domestic policy initiatives. He has now commuted 673 sentences, more than the previous ten presidents combined.
Commutation (that is, a reduction in the severity of a criminal sentence) is a form of executive clemency. The Constitution expressly grants clemency powers, and presidents since George Washington have used these powers in a variety of different ways. In recent decades, though, there has been a certain whiff of disrepute surrounding clemency. Bill Clinton’s pardon of financier Marc Rich and George W. Bush’s commutation of the sentence of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, among other scandals, contributed to a perception that clemency was unfairly used to benefit wealthy, powerful defendants.
Despite these negative perceptions of clemency, the Obama Administration announced in 2014 that it would welcome commutation applications from certain nonviolent federal offenders. In particular, the initiative focuses on offenders who were convicted many years ago of crimes that would result in a shorter sentence today. Federal sentencing law has undergone several important changes in the past decade, especially in relation to the sentencing of crack cocaine offenses. Federal crack sentences were notoriously severe for many years, with greatly disproportionate effects on black defendants. As a result of the recent changes, thousands of federal prisoners are now serving terms that would be shorter if they were imposed for the same offenses today.
In comparison to the secretive, ad hoc decisionmaking of previous presidents, President Obama’s initiative represents an admirably transparent, principled approach to clemency. (more…)