Last Friday I noted that President Obama had commuted the sentences of 95 federal prisoners – mostly non-violent drug offenders. It turns out that “mostly” was accurate because two of them didn’t fit that description.
Carolyn Yvonne Butler of Texas, convicted of three counts of armed bank robbery and using a firearm during a violent crime, and George Andre Axam of Georgia, convicted of possessing a firearm as a felon.
Activists within the criminal justice reform movement noticed and weighed in.
“It’s a good message to send to governors across the country, given that they have similar commutation and pardon powers that could be exercised this way,” Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, told TakePart.
The reason Mauer says that is because at some point, in order to effectively deal with mass incarceration, we’re going to have to deal with “violent offenders.” And that is primarily an issue for the states, where their prison population is broken down like this:
Consider the nation’s largest incarcerated population, the 1,315,000 held in state prisons. Only 4 percent are there for drug possession. An additional 12 percent are incarcerated for drug sales, manufacturing, or trafficking. Eleven percent are there for public order offenses such as prostitution or drunk driving, and 19 percent for property crimes such as fraud and car theft, including some property crimes that many consider serious or violent, such as home invasion. That leaves a full 54 percent of state prisoners who are incarcerated for violent crimes, including murder, kidnapping, manslaughter, rape, sexual assault, and armed robbery.
The federal government (and the President) are somewhat limited in what they can do to address the problem of mass incarceration. That is because only 13% of those incarcerated are in federal prisons – 48% of those are drug offenders. Between the President’s Clemency Initiative and the retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act, that number will be dramatically reduced in the coming year. But as the numbers above demonstrate, non-violent drug offenders are a small part of the enormous state prison population.
John Pfaff, professor of law at Fordham University School of Law, described President Obama’s commutations of the sentences of Butler and Axam this way:
“The most powerful thing Obama can do is shape the national conversation,” he said. “There’s certainly no downside to Obama having done this, but more governors have to have the courage to come out and actually start commuting violent offenders’ sentences.”
In other words, President Obama has opened the door for a conversation about the much tougher issues involved in ending mass incarceration. Time for governors to step up.