A coalition of criminal-justice-reform advocates asked President Obama on Tuesday to expand the number of inmates eligible for clemency by granting commutations to broad categories of nonviolent offenders.
Currently, inmates who meet certain criteria file individual clemency petitions that are reviewed by several layers of officials at the Justice Department and the White House.
The coalition, which includes former judges and prosecutors as well as groups such as the NAACP and the Sentencing Project, is asking Obama instead to “grant sweeping commutations” to large groups of inmates, possibly without the individual review of each petition.
“With the stroke of your pen, you could change the lives of thousands of individuals and their families and write a legacy that will stand throughout history,” the coalition wrote in a letter to Obama. “We do not know whether the next president will support clemency efforts or criminal justice reform. But we do know that until January 20, you alone have the power to deliver both mercy and justice to those who deserve it.”
Under his two-year-old clemency initiative, Obama has granted a historic number of commutations — more than 1,000 — to federal drug offenders who were imprisoned over the past several decades under harsh sentencing laws. Of those inmates, 342 were serving life sentences for their offenses.
But the administration of President-elect Donald Trump is not expected to keep in place Obama’s program. That program has involved a stepped-up effort to review cases by U.S. Pardon Attorney Robert A. Zauzmer, Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates and White House Counsel W. Neil Eggleston, along with a massive effort by Clemency Project 2014, a group of about 4,000 volunteer lawyers from across the country who have been sifting through inmate clemency requests and helping prisoners who meet the criteria prepare petitions.
During his campaign, Trump called for more “law and order” measures and criticized Obama’s clemency initiative.
Eggleston has said that the president will continue to issue more grants of clemency throughout the remainder of his term and has pointed out that Obama’s commutation of sentences for 1,023 people is more than the previous 11 presidents combined. This year, Obama commuted the sentences of 839 individuals, the most ever granted in a single year by any president.
The coalition of more than 50 advocates praised Obama but urged him to move quickly in his remaining weeks and grant relief to thousands of other drug offenders behind bars.
“While your administration continues to review individual petitions, we urge you to also determine that nonviolent offenders in certain extremely low-risk categories either deserve expedited review or should be granted clemency absent an individualized review,” the group wrote.
In the letter, the group suggested considering inmates serving time for crack-cocaine offenses who did not receive benefits under the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, an effort to address the disparate sentences for powder and crack cocaine. The group said that the Justice Department should place those inmates in a camp, the lowest level of federal incarceration, or in a low- or medium-security facility as “a surrogate for how an individual has behaved in prison,” one of the criteria for clemency, to speed up the clemency process.
The letter also suggests giving special priority to veterans and older individuals.
Privately, administration officials said it is highly unlikely that Obama will change the process of how he is granting commutations. White House and Justice Department officials have called on Congress to pass comprehensive criminal-justice-reform legislation to further address the issue of outdated, harsh drug sentences.