Thousands await decision from Obama on clemency


With each passing day, Alice Johnson gets a little more nervous.

The 61-year-old mother of four and now grandmother has petitioned President Obama for clemency after spending the last 20 years behind bars for a nonviolent drug offense. She was given a life sentence for the offense, which was her first of any kind.

{mosads}Obama has commuted 872 sentences since taking office, with 98 of them coming in the last week alone. While that’s more commutations than any president since Woodrow Wilson, thousands of petitions, like Johnson’s, are still pending.

“I never thought it would take this long,” Johnson said. “By all indications I’m a perfect candidate for it.” 

Since there’s no guarantee the next administration will carry on the clemency initiative, Johnson is hoping Obama will her give her an answer before leaving office. 

“They have been denying quite a few people recently, so that’s been nerve-wracking. We’re holding our breath,” said her daughter Tretessa Johnson.

There were 11,253 clemency petitions pending as of Oct. 6, according to the most recent numbers available on the Justice Department’s website.

Only nonviolent, low-level offenders who have served at least 10 years of their federal sentence, demonstrated good behavior while behind bars and have no significant criminal history or a history of violence are eligible for the initiative.

Among those whose circumstances meet the criteria, hopes are high.

The organization #cut50, which is dedicated to reforming the criminal justice system and reducing the U.S. prison population, said the inmates who applied for clemency never would have thought to do so before the administration announced its clemency initiative in 2014.

“It was such a far-fetched idea, so people didn’t even think to apply, but the administration’s clemency initiative was essentially a direct invitation for those to apply, and they did in record numbers,” said Brittany Byrd, an attorney who leads #cut50’s #ClemencyNOW campaign.

“This is a party we never thought we’d even get invited to attend and we were, and now we’re waiting to get in.”

The Department of Justice (DOJ) says it is confident it will be able to get through all the applications submitted by Aug. 31. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said the last round of commutations on Thursday “reflect the department’s accelerated progress in prioritizing and reviewing petitions.”

“As we’ve said before, the Department of Justice remains committed to reviewing and providing a recommendation on every petition submitted by August 31 of this year that involves a drug crime,” she said in a statement. “And we will continue to prioritize the review [of] any drug related petitions that have been submitted since that time.”

The agency would not publicly say how many it has left to go through.

The DOJ is just one step in the clemency process; Obama still has to act on the petitions the agency recommends for clemency. 

The president has commuted the sentences of 688 inmates just this year — more than the last 11 presidents combined, as the White House points out. But as the days tick by, it looks more and more unlikely that he’ll be able to act on every petition submitted to him.

“The atmosphere is extremely heavy, and it gets heavier by the day,” Byrd said.

But Byrd’s not critical of Obama’s effort. She says what the president has done thus far is historic, and she’s encouraging him to keep up the pace to ensure no one is left behind.

While criminal justice reformers praise Obama’s initiative, opponents claim he’s abusing his power and releasing people who don’t deserve to be back on the streets.

“These are not people picked up for smoking pot on a street corner,” said Thomas Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group. “These are key figures in major drug operations.”

The White House maintains that Obama is using his authority to help people who deserve a second chance. 

“While there has been much attention paid to the number of commutations issued by the President, at the core, we must remember that there are personal stories behind these numbers,” White House chief counsel Neil Eggleston said in a blog post last week. “These are individuals — many of whom made mistakes at a young age — who have diligently worked to rehabilitate themselves while incarcerated.”

Ebony Underwood, of New York City, said it’s been an emotional roller coaster waiting to find out the fate of her father’s clemency petition.  She said she feels “completely gutted” every time a new list is released and William Underwood’s name isn’t there. But she’s not giving up hope.

“Hope for me is an acronym: Hold on, pain ends,” she said.

William Underwood has served 28 years of the life sentence he was given for his first felony — drug conspiracy.

“He did sell drugs to provide for his family as a young teen dad,” she said. “But he left the business.”

Ebony Underwood said there was no evidence presented at trial against her father, adding that the people who testified against him in return for shorter prison stays have all been released.

“He’s an incredible guy that needs to be home,” she said.

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