Obama gears up for clemency review

President Obama will meet Wednesday morning with members of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, as the administration pushes forward with a review of the presidential clemency system that could lead to the release of thousands of prisoners.

In April, the White House announced the Justice Department would broaden guidelines to determine which federal prisoners were eligible for clemency review.

ADVERTISEMENT
Under the program, the Department of Justice plans to broaden which federal prisoners will be eligible for presidential clemency review. The new guidelines are intended to chiefly benefit non-violent drug offenders, and especially those given longer sentences for crack cocaine.

In recent years, federal lawmakers have moved to reduce additional penalties for those in possession of crack, rather than powder cocaine, in a bid to both reduce prison populations and the unequal prosecution of minorities. 

And earlier this year, the Sentencing Commission voted to reduce sentencing guideline levels for most federal drug convictions. Under the change, according to the commission, seven in 10 drug trafficking defendants would be eligible for shorter sentences, which would decrease an average of 11 months.

Obama has commuted the sentences of only 10 individuals so far through his presidency, the majority of which were convicted on federal crack cocaine charges. 

The review was motivated by Obama's desire "to make sure that everyone has a fair shot," White House press secretary Jay Carney said at the time.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said the administration was "moving swiftly to put this clemency project into effect."

"We’ve already established an extensive screening mechanism, and we’ve begun the process of engaging assistance from pro bono attorneys," Holder said. "And we will continue to consult with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and trial judge who handled each original case – so we can evaluate clemency applications in the appropriate context."

The White House has said that while it will press forward with its clemency review, it prefers that those "serving unfairly long sentences under outdated guidelines" be freed through congressional action, rather than presidential decree.

"The clemency process is not an appropriate vehicle to address that injustice in a comprehensive way," Carney said. "That should be done through bipartisan legislation like the measures currently working their way through Congress. And as you know, this is an issue on which there is a bipartisan coalition that believes actions needs to be taken, and there are measures in Congress that reflect that."

 

More in Senate

McConnell: Obama needs to be ‘realistic’

Read more »