April 23, 2014 3:03PM

Obama’s Clemency Project

Today, James Cole, Deputy Attorney General of the United States, announced a new “Clemency Initiative.” The gist is that the Obama administration is soliciting more clemency petitions as a part of its “Smart on Crime” plan to address our “vastly overcrowded prison population.”

According to Cole, Obama is anxious to commute more prison sentences, but something has been amiss thus far. To respond to Obama’s new directive, Cole tells us that a new team of lawyers will be taking over the Office of the Pardon Attorney within the Department of Justice and the new team is going to expedite clemency applications for Obama’s consideration.

The new initiative is aimed at inmates who meet the following criteria:

1. Presently serving time federal prison. (Inmates in state prison ineligible).

2. Would have received a lesser sentence if current sentencing rules had been in place when they were sentenced way back when.

3. No significant ties to gangs, cartels, or mafia families. “Low‐​level” offenders.

4. No significant criminal history.

5. Record of good conduct while in prison.

6. No history of violence prior to, or during, prison stay.

7. Must have already served 10 years of prison sentence.

The administration is really hyping this initiative and raising expectations about dramatic moves by Obama as this gets underway. I remain skeptical for a few reasons. First, I question the narrative that it has only recently occured to Obama that there ought to be more meritorious clemency petitions on his desk. 

Second, I note that the administration is expecting to receive thousands of petitions and applications. That language is important. Later on, Obama’s people may say, “As expected, we received thousands of applications! We never said there would be hundreds or thousands of commutations.” 

Third, there’s just no way of telling how the criteria are going to applied. What are “significant ties” to gangs? “Significant” criminal history? A “history” of violence? For example, maybe there is a guy who was caught driving a truck full of marijuana. Maybe he was sentenced to 20 years in prison because of the amount of drugs. Suppose he had no real ties to any gang or cartel and suppose he has already served 12 years for the non‐​violent offense. Good candidate? Wait, there’s a problem. While in prison, he was disciplined a few times for fighting with other inmates. (The prison authorities couldn’t tell whether the candidate was only defending himself, as he claimed, or not.) According to a strict reading of the criteria, the candidate’s petition will fail #5 and #6 above. But is it wise to keep a person like this locked up?

Obama deserves some credit for turning his attention to clemency. But we will have to await his actions. For many non‐​violent drug offenders, the wait has already been too long. 

For related Cato work, go here and here. More background at the PardonPower blog.