Over at The Nation, penology writer and expert Sasha Abramsky asks why President Obama has not granted more commutations (sentence reductions) and pardons (restoration of rights) to federal prisoners and ex-prisoners.
Abramsky raises some important and disturbing points: President Obama's pardoning record doesn't match up with his rhetoric about crime, the lack of clemency may not be entirely his fault, and ultimately, what we need is permanent legislative changes to our unjust sentencing laws.
A president who talks the talk about more sensible, nuanced drug policy, and whose oratory frequently invokes what is best in the American political imagination, has shown himself remarkably reluctant to use one of the most important of presidential prerogatives—the power to right judicial wrongs. “This president,” says [Salt Lake City mayor and civil rights lawyer Rocky] Anderson, “has been unbelievably timid and disinclined to do justice in cases that scream out for commutation. There’s not a lot of moral or political fortitude in play.”
On January 5, The New York Times ran an editorial calling on the president to exercise his pardon power—while also pointing out that the Justice Department, too, “has undermined the process with huge backlogs and delays, and sometimes views pardons as an affront to federal efforts to fight crime.” The Times also blamed Ronald Rodgers, the lawyer who runs the Office of the Pardon Attorney and has obstructed the process, and argued that his office should be replaced with “a new bipartisan commission under the White House’s aegis, giving it ample resources and real independence.”
In the long run, when it comes to preventing future unjust sentences like the one given [Weldon] Angelos, Congress and state legislatures should be the ones to roll back the excesses of the drug war. And there’s no doubt that Obama, a constitutional law scholar, understands how much more powerful legislation is than the willful, even capricious, pardon function of the president. (After all, Clinton was excoriated for what appeared to be pardons issued in exchange for campaign and other contributions. And Bush was heavily criticized for commuting the prison term of his disgraced adviser Lewis Libby.) But when there’s a massive miscarriage of justice—as has happened all too often during the forty years of the “war on drugs”—the president’s ability to pardon or commute sentences is vital.