• Liz Venerable

Free to Go: President Obama Approves a Historic 214 Clemencies

Photo courtesy of http://dailysignal.com/

On August 3, President Barack Obama approved a historic 214 clemencies: the biggest number of pardons granted on a single day in more than a century.

According to Justice.gov, clemency under the criminal justice system is the act by an executive member of government of extending mercy to a convicted individual. It is considered to be an act of grace, and is based on the policy of fairness, justice, and forgiveness. In the United States, clemency is granted by a governor for state crimes and by a president for federal crimes. Clemency can take one of three forms: a reprieve, a commutation of sentence, or a pardon.

In April of 2014, the President Obama set out to make significant changes to clemency, to spotlight instances of over-sentencing in our prisons. President Obama directed the Department of Justice (DOJ) to rank petitions for commutations from individuals convicted of non-violent drug offenses.

The DOJ created an initiative to encourage qualified federal inmates to petition to have their sentences commuted or reduced. Under the new initiative, the department will prioritize clemency applications from inmates who meet all of the following requirements:

  • They are currently serving a federal sentence in prison and, by operation of law, likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense(s) today.

  • They are non-violent, low-level offenders without significant ties to large-scale criminal organizations, gangs or cartels.

  • They have served at least 10 years of their prison sentence.

  • They do not have a significant criminal history.

  • They have demonstrated good conduct in prison.

  • They have no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment.

Photo courtesy of cdn.theatlantic.com

After the announcement of the 214 commutations, President Obama stated on his Facebook page, "This is a country that believes in second chances, so we've got to make sure that our criminal justice system works for everyone."

The clemencies President Obama approved were for drug-related offenses with many for possession and distribution of crack cocaine. President Obama has argued that laws requiring mandatory minimum sentences for those types of crimes are unfair.

Of the 214 commutations President Obama granted, 67 of the prisoners were facing life sentences and the majority of them were imprisoned for non-violent drug crimes.

In each of these cases, President Obama examined each application on its individual merits. The grant of clemency is unique to each applicant’s individual case. While some commutation recipients will begin to process out of federal custody immediately, others will serve more time.

The applicants’ successful re-entry will be aided with additional drug treatment. While these with term reductions are required to serve additional time, it will also allow applicants to continue their rehabilitation by completing educational, self-improvement programming to participate in drug or other counseling services.

Neil Eggleston, one of President Obama's lawyers, wrote in a White House blog post,

"The individual nature of the clemency process underscores both its incredible power to change a person's life, but also its inherent shortcoming as a tool for broader sentencing reform. This is why action from Congress is so important. While we continue to work to act on as many clemency applications as possible, only legislation can bring about lasting change to the federal system. It is critical that both the House and the Senate continue to work on a bipartisan basis to create a criminal justice reform bill.”

As of today, President Obama has granted 562 commutations, which is more commutations than the previous nine presidents have granted combined.

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