President Obama granted 12 pardons and 8 commutations on Wednesday. The pardons, given mostly to people who had served out their sentences long ago, were for a variety of mostly minor offenses ranging from "working a distillery on which the required sign is not placed" to "manufacture of marijuana" to wire fraud.
Of more interest to the debate over criminal justice reform are the 8 commutations handed out to low-level cocaine offenders given steep sentences ranging anywhere from several decades to life. Instead, these prison sentences are now set to expire next year.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a statement on the 8 commutations, saying "their punishments did not fit their crimes, and sentencing laws and policies have since been updated to ensure more fairness for low-level offenders. All eight of these individuals meet the criteria I laid out under the President’s direction when I announced the Clemency Initiative in April."
This is undoubtedly true, but the new clemency guidelines apply to thousands of prisoners, perhaps tens of thousands. While the eight commutations are a start, they're less than a drop in the bucket when it comes to the total universe of low-level drug offenders serving unreasonably harsh sentences.
There are at least 300,000 prisoners serving state and federal sentences for various drug crimes, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Of those, at least 100,000 are imprisoned for simple drug possession alone, and thousands more are doing time for other low-level offenses.
Given this context, the eight commutations are a marginal step toward realizing the promise of sentencing reform. And as noted many times before, Obama is the most pardon-averse president in history. Prisoners who apply for some form of clemency have roughly a 1-in-213 chance of receiving it these days, the steepest odds under any president.
This is partly a function of the high volume of clemency requests Obama receives. But even when we just look at clemencies granted, Obama still stands out as an unforgiving president. He's averaged about 1.6 pardons and commutations per month of his term, the lowest of any president whose pardons are tracked by the Justice Dept.
This is part of a trend going back to at least Woodrow Wilson of presidents being less willing to issue pardons. This is particularly significant when you consider that the prison population has skyrocketed over the same time period. In addition to locking more people up and giving them harsher sentences, presidents have also been giving inmates less relief.
Of course, clemency reform has never been a truly comprehensive approach to fixing the problems of our justice system. The president is unlikely to grant relief to tens of thousands of inmates. Rather, true reform will only happen by reworking sentencing rules so that we're not locking people up for low-level crime to begin with.
The Smarter Sentencing Act would have been a modest step in this direction. It would have reduced, but not eliminated, mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. But despite bipartisan support, Congress left it on the table unfinished this year.