Obama Should Step Up Clemencies to Restore Justice

Inmates serving a jail sentence make a phone call in 2010 at Maricopa County's Tent City jail in Phoenix. We need legislative reforms to abolish or reduce the length of mandatory drug sentences, with the changes made retroactive, the author writes. Joshua Lott/Reuters

July 13 was no doubt a day of excitement and jubilation for the 46 men and women whose long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses were commuted by President Barack Obama.

As the president noted, their punishments did not fit the crime. They were not violent criminals, yet most had been sentenced to at least 20 years in prison; 14 of them had life sentences without parole.

The lucky 46 are a tiny fraction of the 30,000 offenders who hope to have their onerous and unfair sentences commuted by the president. Last year, the White House began an initiative to prioritize clemency petitions from low-level, nonviolent federal offenders who have already served 10 years of their sentence, who have little or no prior criminal history, and who have demonstrated good conduct during their incarceration.

The process has proved glacial—slowed by layers of paperwork review by the attorneys filing petitions for the prisoners, Department of Justice officials and then the White House. There have been only 89 commutations since Obama took office.

Meanwhile, every day, more people are convicted and sent to prison under harsh federal sentencing laws that are widely criticized—by liberals and conservatives alike—as unjust, unnecessary, unwise and wildly expensive to enforce.

So it's hard to be excited by these latest commutations. Individual clemency, welcome as it is in these cases, cannot address the wider injustice of so many people being locked up for so long for so little.

The counsel to the president acknowledges that "clemency alone will not fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies." The U.S. needs legislative reforms that, at the very least, abolish or markedly reduce the length of mandatory drug sentences, with the changes made retroactive to benefit those already doing time. Promising legislation has been proposed, including the Smarter Sentencing Act and the Safe, Accountable, Fair and Effective Justice Act.

One can hope Congress will do the right thing, but legislative reform faces a tough battle. For all the media coverage of bipartisan support for federal sentencing reform, it would be foolish at this point to predict success.

Indeed, if Congress does not act quickly, election year timidity may well doom the prospects for sentencing reform. And it's not yet clear whether the White House will throw its weight wholeheartedly behind comprehensive reform, including retroactivity.

Obama has proclaimed the U.S. a nation of second chances. But the question is not whether a few individuals will be struck by the legal equivalent of lightning and be given a second chance at life outside prison walls. For the U.S. to be a nation of justice, Obama needs to do more than issue a paltry number of commutations while the clock on his term ticks down.

Should he consider a bold and historic mass commutation, where all federal prisoners who meet the criteria of the clemency initiative have their sentences commuted? What is the best way to correct decades of injustice?

Jamie Fellner is senior advisor, U.S. program at Human Rights Watch, on whose site this article first appeared.