Obama's use of clemency power sparks criticism

Obama's use of clemency power sparks criticism
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President Obama's aggressive use of clemency power is stirring controversy.        

Obama is on track to commute the most sentences by a president since 1929. But unlike his actions on immigration and healthcare, it's not whether he has the authority to reduce prison stays that's drawing criticism — it’s the type of inmates he's helping. 


“We’re very concerned,” said Steve Cook, president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys. “What is happening is he’s undoing a lot of the work we’ve spent the last two-and-a-half to three decades doing.”

So far, Obama has commuted 673 sentences, with 325 coming in August alone. P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist tracking the data, said Obama is likely to eclipse Calvin Coolidge, who commuted 773 sentences. Woodrow Wilson holds the record, with 1,366 commutations. 

“There’s more coming before he leaves office,” Ruckman said. “It’s just a matter of how many.”

Only non-violent, low-level offenders, who have served at least 10 years of their federal sentence and demonstrated good behavior qualify for Obama’s clemency initiative. Inmates cannot have a significant criminal history or a history of violence prior to or during their imprisonment. 

Cook argues those requirements aren’t being met.

In the last few rounds of commutations, Cook said one inmate was the leader of a drug ring that trafficked in over 10 tons of cocaine, six had previously been convicted of being drug kingpins and another had been convicted of possessing a sawed off shot gun.

Cook was referring to Ralph Casas, John Franklin Banks, Corey Lyndell Blount, Rudy Martinez, Danielle Bernard Metz, Dewayne L. Comer, Dawan Croskery and Alfonso Allen. 

“The trend seems to be they get worse and worse,” Cook said. “To say we’re concerned would be an understatement.” 

Responding to Cook's claims, an official with the White House said the President does not condone violence of any kind, but believes individuals who have truly paid their debt to society and demonstrated a commitment to not repeating past mistakes should be given a chance to earn their freedom.  

They then noted that individuals who receive a commutation face the same restrictions on purchasing firearms as other convicted criminals. 

Obama’s commutations are playing out against the backdrop of a broader debate about criminal justice reform.

The White House, Democrats and some Republicans in Congress have pushed to roll back mandatory minimum laws, arguing they have created a crisis of over-incarceration.

But opponents of ending mandatory minimums in Congress, and some law enforcement groups like the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, say mandatory minimums have helped to reduce crime and should remain in place.

With criminal justice reform stalled in Congress, Obama has taken matters into his own hands.

The White House says the president is using his clemency authority to help people who deserve a second chance. People like Romona Brant, who was charged for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense in 1995 and sentenced to life in prison. She served 20 years before receiving clemency in 2015.

Sherman Chester served over 20 years of his life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense before Obama commuted his sentence in 2015.

With 2.2 million Americans behind bars, the commutations Obama has granted are a drop in the bucket, especially when compared to those who’ve been denied. 

Ruckman said Obama has denied 10,968 commutation requests so far. As of Aug. 11, there were 11,477 petitions still pending.

While thrilled that Obama has used his power to reduce unfairly long prison stays, Ruckman said he is leery of the president’s late embrace of the clemency power.

“I am very wary of the fact that he’s doing this in a last-minute fashion,” he said. “That’s when things go wrong. I think it’s a legitimate concern to be worried the proper vetting will not take place.”

Kevin Ring, vice president for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said it took time to create the process and gather the necessary resources to start properly vetting inmates after Obama announced his clemency initiative in 2014. 

“The pipeline has been created, so you'd expect more to be coming through,” he said. 

Former Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderEx-AG Holder urges GOP to speak against Trump efforts to 'subvert' election results Tyson Foods suspends Iowa plant officials amid coronavirus scandal Money can't buy the Senate MORE reportedly estimated at the time that the initiative would impact as many as 10,000 inmates.  

“The fact that the numbers are less than people thought they would be shows a level of prudence and careful consideration,” Ring said. 

FAMM is one of the organizations helping to vet potential clemency candidates. King said it’s an intensive process that includes reviewing court and prison records, and checking with the prosecuting attorney. 

“Everyone wants to make sure these go to the most deserving people who will not threaten public safety,” Ring said. “If the numbers are more modest than originally floated, I think that’s a product of it being hard to do.” 

Conservatives have criticized Obama for only focusing on one class of inmates — drug offenders. 

In a statement to the News Virginian in August, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteBottom line No documents? Hoping for legalization? Be wary of Joe Biden Press: Trump's final presidential pardon: himself MORE (R-Va.) said the president’s actions were “not, as the Founders intended, an exercise of the power to provide for 'exceptions in favour of unfortunate guilt.'”

Instead, he said, Obama is using his power to commute sentences “to benefit an entire class of offenders who were duly convicted in a court of law — not to mention [his actions are] a blatant usurpation of the lawmaking authority of the legislative branch."  

Ring argued there’s no limit on the president’s clemency authority and called Goodlatte’s criticisms strange.

“The criticism we’ve heard has been peculiar," he said. "To hear Republicans say it’s his authority, but he’s using it too much ... It’s either his authority to do or it isn’t and it is."