WHEN PRESIDENT Obama commuted the punishments of eight federal inmates last year, he railed against the excesses of an older criminal sentencing system “now recognized as unjust.” Surely, then, more than eight prisoners deserved a second look. This week, finally, the administration made clear that many more federal prisoners will get one.
The Obama administration’s move is not, as some critics have alleged, an outrageous case of an out-of-control president ignoring Congress. It is a legitimate, welcome and overdue use of the president’s underexercised authority to grant clemency to federal convicts.
The Justice Department announced on Wednesday that it is preparing to consider a flood of clemency requests from federal prisoners who believe their sentences were unreasonable, relics of a time when tough-on-crime politics led lawmakers to demand hard punishments for wide classes of criminals, particularly drug offenders. The result was an expensive expansion of the prison population, sometimes because of unnecessarily harsh sentences.
Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole explained that Justice would detail lawyers to consider large numbers of cases, and he laid out the criteria they would use to identify those worthy of the president’s consideration. Among those most likely to succeed, he explained, are inmates who do not have extensive criminal histories, are nonviolent, are not connected to larger criminal organizations or gangs and have served more than 10 years. The focus probably will be on inmates sentenced for certain drug offenses, particularly those sentenced under a law that prescribed widely different treatment of people caught with crack cocaine than those busted for powder cocaine. Congress has since revoked that sentencing rule, yet there are still many warehoused in federal prison based on the old system.
The country has seen crime rates plummet, and policymakers must take care not to move the system too far toward leniency for bona fide criminals. But most of the criticism of the Justice Department’s effort has been wildly off-base. “President Obama,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), “has again demonstrated his blatant disregard for our nation’s laws and our system of checks and balances embedded in the U.S. Constitution.” Yet the Constitution’s Article II gives the president authority to grant clemency. If anything, the exercise of that authority represents an important check on Congress and the courts and has been underused.
Critics are a tad fairer when they point out that broad use of the president’s clemency power is unusual. But President Jimmy Carter granted amnesty to thousands of Vietnam draft dodgers in 1977. In 2003, Illinois Gov. George Ryan unilaterally pulled every state inmate serving a death sentence off death row. Both moves were legitimate. Even if there were nothing close to a historical antecedent to Mr. Obama’s move, that would not reflect poorly on Mr. Obama, but on previous presidents who were too cautious in searching out and addressing the excesses of the old system.
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