On Monday, a White House official told the press that President Obama would be prepared to use his pardon power to grant clemency to “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of people who have been jailed for nonviolent drug crimes. This sort of “mass release” has not been seen since the 1970’s when former President Gerald Ford extended amnesty to Vietnam draft dodgers.
As someone who received executive clemency from the governor of New York in 1997, I know personally the power of such an extraordinary act of mercy to people who have already served enormous amounts of time imprisoned under unjust drug laws, but are stuck in prison and have no legal remedies to regain their freedom. In 1985, I made the biggest mistake of my life when I passed an envelope containing four and a half ounces of cocaine to undercover officers for $500. For this mistake, I was sentenced to 15 years to life under New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws. I served 12 years before then-Gov. George Pataki granted me freedom.
The new moves by the White House come after a January announcement that the Obama administration would taking the unprecedented step of encouraging defense lawyers to suggest inmates whom the president might let out of prison early, as part of its effort to curtail severe penalties in low-level drug cases.
In the past year, Attorney General Eric Holder has made a number of forceful public statements against mass incarceration in the U.S., promising significant rollback of mandatory minimums and harsh sentencing guidelines. Yet, despite his administration’s declared support for substantive criminal justice reform, until now Obama has used his power to grant clemency less frequently than nearly all other U.S. Presidents.
The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee has passed bipartisan sentencing reform legislation that would reduce the federal prison population, decrease racial disparities, save taxpayer money, and reunite nonviolent drug law offenders with their families sooner. The Smarter Sentencing Act is the biggest overhaul in federal drug sentencing in decades. It would cut federal mandatory minimums for drug law violations, so that nonviolent offenders serve less time behind bars and make crack/powder cocaine reform retroactive. It would also expand the ability of judges to use their own discretion when sentencing defendants, so that judges can consider the unique facts of each case and each individual before them.
As an advocate in support of the changes, this would be a positive step toward righting the wrongs of our broken criminal justice system. And I hope governors with clemency power at the state level follow the President’s lead and reunite more families.
With half a million people still behind bars on nonviolent drug charges, clearly thousands are deserving of a second chance.