President Biden on Tuesday pardoned three people, including the first Black Secret Service agent on a presidential detail, and commuted the sentences of 75 nonviolent drug offenders amid calls from criminal justice advocates for more leniency in a system that has disproportionately harmed people of color.
This marked the first time Biden has used his clemency powers in his presidency. Many in the Democratic Party have clamored for him to exercise his executive authority, especially in the area of criminal justice restructuring, and to live up to campaign promises to reduce the number of those incarcerated for nonviolent drug convictions.
Tuesday’s action was a move in that direction, though it fell far short of the policing overhauls that many Black leaders have called for. Several White House officials hosted a virtual roundtable Tuesday afternoon with six formerly incarcerated people who discussed some of the challenges of the current system and how reentry programs help reduce crime.
“There are simply too many people serving unduly long sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, a disproportionate number of whom are Black and Brown,” White House Counsel Dana Remus said at the start of the roundtable.
Along with the grants of clemency, the Biden administration announced new steps to help former prisoners reintegrate, including $145 million for job training and reentry programs.
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) praised the White House’s efforts to grant new beginnings to those who had served their time. “Successful reentry programs are critical to breaking the cycle of crime in our communities and providing economic security to thousands of formerly incarcerated people,” the House Judiciary Committee chairman said in a statement.
Biden’s moves, among other things, are an effort to return the clemency process to its traditional role after the departures of President Donald Trump. While Trump commuted the sentences of various nonviolent drug offenders, he also used his authority in an unprecedented way to help allies, from former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio to political operative Roger Stone.
He pardoned several nonviolent drug offenders after lobbying from socialite Kim Kardashian. And in his final 12 hours in office, Trump unleashed a chaotic flurry of 144 pardons and sentence commutations, including for his former strategist Stephen K. Bannon.
The Justice Department process that typically undergirds a president’s issuing clemency was largely abandoned during those years, and since 2016, the Justice Department had been without a full-time pardon attorney.
It was only a few weeks ago — on April 10 — that Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed someone to the post: Elizabeth G. Oyer, who previously served as senior litigation counsel in the federal defender’s office in Maryland. Before that, the office was led on an acting basis by Rosalind Sargent-Burns, who is now the deputy pardon attorney.
There is no indication that Oyer’s appointment spurred Tuesday’s actions, which Garland had been considering since last summer, according to the New York Times. A Justice Department official said that in each case, officials followed the traditional, often lengthy Justice Department process, which has officials in the pardon attorney’s office reviewing petitions for clemency and making recommendations, often after consulting with U.S. attorneys whose offices handled the prosecutions.
A White House official said that all of the pardons and commutations announced Tuesday went through the pardon attorney.
The Biden administration’s new plans to help individuals transition back into society after incarceration include a program that provides job training; increased support for housing, health care and educational needs; and grants for former convicts hoping to start small businesses.
“As I laid out in my comprehensive strategy to reduce gun crime, helping those who served their time return to their families and become contributing members of their communities is one of the most effective ways to reduce recidivism and decrease crime,” Biden said.
When Biden was a senator, he was a primary author of the 1994 crime bill, which became a signature piece of his political and legislative career but was later criticized for leading to a jump in incarceration, especially of young Black men, and for provisions that required mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole in certain cases.
As a presidential candidate amid the racial justice protests of 2020, Biden adopted a different tone, stressing a need to reform the justice system, a theme he reiterated Tuesday. “While today’s announcement marks important progress, my Administration will continue to review clemency petitions and deliver reforms that advance equity and justice, provide second chances, and enhance the wellbeing and safety of all Americans,” Biden said.
Among those pardoned was Abraham Bolden Sr., who was the first Black person on a presidential Secret Service detail, serving during John F. Kennedy’s presidency. In 1964, Bolden was charged with trying to sell a copy of a Secret Service file. His first trial ended in a hung jury; he was convicted at a second trial, although later key witnesses against him admitted to lying at the request of the prosecutor. He served several years in federal custody.
Bolden, 87, of Chicago has consistently maintained his innocence and argued that he was a target because he exposed racism prevalent in the 1960s in the Secret Service. He has been praised for challenging racial injustice and for other community service contributions since his release from prison.
Biden also pardoned Betty Jo Bogans, 51, of Houston. Bogans was convicted in 1998 of possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine after trying to transport drugs for her boyfriend and his accomplice, neither of whom were detained or arrested.
Bogans was a single mother with no prior record when she received a seven-year sentence after her conviction. Since her release, she has spent nearly two decades working and raising her son, and she has undergone cancer treatment.
Biden also pardoned Dexter Eugene Jackson, 52, who did not sell marijuana but was convicted of allowing dealers to use his pool hall for drug transactions. Jackson, of Athens, Ga., pleaded guilty and served time. After his release, he turned his pool hall into a cellphone repair business that partnered with a program to give local high school students work experience.
Some who have followed pardons and commutations closely said Biden’s choices were somewhat confusing, in part because he issued only a handful when there is a large backlog of cases similar to the cases of those who were pardoned.
“I find these grants welcome but a bit curious,” said Margaret Love, who served as U.S. pardon attorney between 1990 and 1997 and has since successfully represented numerous individuals with federal convictions in the clemency process. The two drug cases that led to pardons “are pretty much indistinguishable from a large number of cases that are pending — some for more than a decade,” Love said. “The criteria for their selection is simply not clear to me.”
Biden also commuted the sentence of 75 nonviolent drug offenders from across the country, many of whom were serving in home confinement.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Biden was focused on individuals who had less than four years to serve. She said Tuesday’s action was only a first step, to be followed by other pardons and commutations.
“This is a priority to the president,” Psaki said. “He feels that second chances are important. … So it doesn’t stop here. It will be ongoing, and there may be more in the future.”
John Wagner and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.