Confusing Thoughtfulness With Cowardice

Recently Ryan Cooper wrote this:

Of all the powers of the presidency, the pardon is perhaps the most absolute. The president can pardon anyone for any or no reason, with an exception in the case of impeachment (so he may not pardon himself). It provides a kind of emergency valve for the criminal justice system, in which people who have been unjustly convicted can still appeal to common sense and decency.

President Obama has been more stingy with this power than any president in American history. It betrays a rampant political cowardice in his administration, and a callous disregard for human rights.

Presidents have been pardoning fewer and fewer people in recent history, but Obama has set a new record in pardoning just 64 people so far. Both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton pardoned more — and so did even the first Bush, despite the fact he was only in office for one term. What’s more, many of Obama’s pardons have been for people who were already released from prison, making them more PR efforts than victories for justice. His record on commutations is better, but not by much.

Cooper goes on to talk about the thousands of people who are still in prison due to the disparate sentencing guidelines on crack cocaine that were partially remedied in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. And then he writes this:

There is the fear that if they freed those thousands of wrongfully imprisoned people, a few would probably commit more crimes and end up back in prison, setting the stage for another Willie Horton advertisement. Better thousands upon thousands of people be imprisoned unjustly than the administration have to deal with a political scandal.

I seriously have no idea why someone like Cooper would write an article like this that completely ignores President Obama’s Clemency Initiative – which is focused on commuting the sentences of exactly those thousands of people he’s talking about.

Let’s review the numbers for just a moment. Since announcing that initiative, the Office of Pardons has received thousands of petitions. President Obama has already commuted 89 of those sentences (the most since LBJ) after rigorous review. There are currently over 8,000 petitions pending and the administration has promised to act on all those that are received by January 2016.

Cooper suggests that all of these people should not only be released from prison, but have their crimes pardoned without any review of their records. He seems completely unaware of the fact that, more than just a political scandal, another Willie Horton ad campaign would send us back to the dark ages on criminal justice reform.

I am someone who finds absolutely nothing redeeming in this country’s misguided war on drugs and have no love lost for the way our current criminal justice system operates. But I also think that what Cooper is suggesting is nothing short of reckless. A thoughtful approach that reviews individual situations is what is called for…exactly what President Obama is doing.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.