Obama Announces the First Commutations of His Clemency Initiative

Over the weekend when I predicted that President Obama’s videotaped conversation with David Simon was an attempt to lay the groundwork for something, it wasn’t because I was indulging in fantasized optimism. I’ve been watching this President closely enough over the last few years to know that most everything he does on the job has a strategic purpose. And so this announcement Tuesday came as no surprise.

Building on his commitment to address instances of unfairness in sentencing, President Obama granted 22 commutations today to individuals serving time in federal prison. Had they been sentenced under current laws and policies, many of these individuals would have already served their time and paid their debt to society. Because many were convicted under an outdated sentencing regime, they served years — in some cases more than a decade — longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime.

About a year ago, the Obama administration introduced a Clemency Initiative that was designed to reform the dysfunctional Office of the Pardon Attorney and focus on inviting applications from non-violent drug offenders who had been the victims of outdated sentencing guidelines. Recently I wrote about how that effort had been overwhelmed with the response from over 25,000 inmates. Yesterday’s announcement is the direct result of that work.

This looks to be the first in what will likely be more commutations based on that initiative. The President recently told Ryan Reilly that he plans to use his clemency power “more aggressively.” And Tuesday’s announcement said that this work will continue as the administration reviews all applications for clemency thoroughly.

It is clear that moves like this are not only designed to provide justice to people who were unjustly sentenced. It is also a way to keep up the conversation on the prospects for bipartisan criminal justice reform.

The President is encouraged by the bipartisan support for improving our criminal justice system, including promising legislation that would implement front-end changes in sentencing. In addition, he supports bipartisan efforts to provide back-end support through better education and job training for those currently incarcerated and to reform of our juvenile justice system to build on the significant reductions in the number of youth being held in secure facilities.

Given that the injustices addressed by President Obama’s Clemency Initiative fell disproportionately on black and brown people in this country, this work will go right along side the efforts of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice to create a strong legacy for this President in tackling some of the most pernicious systemic issues affecting people of color.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.