President Obama expected to grant more clemencies to federal prisoners in coming weeks
President Obama is expected to grant clemency to another group of drug offenders in the coming weeks, part of his ongoing effort to provide relief to inmates in federal prisons who were sentenced to harsh terms in the nation’s war on drugs.
The White House will also be holding an event on March 31 called “Life after Clemency,” that will include former inmates and their attorneys, along with some prison reform advocates. The White House gathering, which is not open to the press, will focus on one of the president’s centerpiece criminal-justice initiatives and will include a discussion on “ways to improve paths to reentry,” according to the invitation.
Spokeswomen from the White House and the Department of Justice declined to comment.
A report released this week by the independent U.S. Sentencing Commission found that nearly half of offenders released from prison or placed on probation in 2005 were rearrested within eight years for either a new crime or another violation of their probation or release. But recidivism rates dropped to 33.8 percent for offenders in the lowest criminal history category, which is the one that covers most of the non-violent inmates given clemency by Obama.
The study, which Chief Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission, said was “groundbreaking” in its breadth and duration, also found that offenders released prior to age 21 had the highest rearrest rate, at 67.6 percent, compared to 16 percent for those offenders over 60 years of age at the time of release.
Today, prisoners 50 and older represent the fastest-growing population in crowded federal correctional facilities, their ranks having swelled by 25 percent to nearly 31,000 from 2009 to 2013.
In the spring of 2014, former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — who called mandatory-minimum drug sentences “draconian” — launched an initiative to grant clemency to certain nonviolent drug offenders in federal prison.
To qualify, prisoners had to have served at least 10 years of their sentence, and have no significant criminal history and no connection to gangs, cartels or organized crime. They must have demonstrated good conduct in prison. And they also must be inmates who probably would have received a “substantially lower sentence” if convicted of the same offense today.
Since then, Obama has commuted the sentences of 184 federal inmates, including 95 prisoners he granted clemency to in December. Another 9,115 clemency petitions from prisoners are pending before the Obama administration. It is unclear how many of them are still being reviewed in the U.S. Pardon Attorney’s office or how many are pending in the office of Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates or the White House Counsel’s office because that information is not publicly available.
The Justice Department’s former pardon attorney, Deborah Leff, stepped down in January because she was frustrated by a lack of resources to process clemency petitions and recommend which ones should be sent to the White House. The new pardon attorney, longtime federal prosecutor Bob Zauzmer, said that his goal — whether he gets more needed resources or not — is “to look at every single petition that comes in and make sure an appropriate recommendation is made to the president.”
Along with former inmates coming to Washington at the end of March for the White House event, dozens of former prisoners and their families are gathering in the District of Columbia this month to mark the 25th anniversary of the group, Families Against Mandatory Minimums. The group was started by Julie Stewart long before there was a sentencing reform movement after her brother was sent to federal prison in Washington state for a mandatory five years for growing marijuana.
“When I started my group, sentencing reform was such a fringe issue,” Stewart said. “Nobody knew anything about it and nobody cared. We’ve been working so hard for so many years to build bipartisan support. People are serving decades behind bars for nonviolent mistakes they made in their 20s.”
Stewart said that two decades ago “while so many were considering whether it was safe to support sentencing reform” her organization reached out to thousands of inmates in prisons across the country and worked to bring their stories and severe sentences to the attention of lawmakers. Many of those granted clemency so far by Obama and promoted by other advocates were originally on the list created by Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
“Now that there is broad agreement that sentencing reform is needed, we are fighting for much more comprehensive reforms that will impact hundreds of thousands more in the years to come,” Stewart said.
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