President Obama announced 214 commutations on August 3, 2016, spurring hope that the pace will increase as he nears the end of his term in office. This latest batch, the largest number of commutations issued in a single day since 1900 according to the White House, brings the total during Obama’s tenure to 562 – including 197 granted to life-sentenced prisoners. He has also denied almost 11,000 commutation petitions, while 3,893 petitions were closed without presidential action.
Commutation alters a prisoner’s sentence but does not nullify the conviction. Prisoners who receive commutations are not freed immediately, but are transferred to a halfway house at a specified time before being released and placed on community supervision if applicable.
Prisoners’ rights advocates applauded the announcement, but noted that the number of federal prisoners granted commutations is still minimal when compared to those who have filed petitions. Almost all of the commutations have been for drug-related crimes, although some were for combined drug and weapons charges.
“Our work is far from finished,” wrote White House counsel Neil Eggleston. “I expect the President will continue to grant clemency in a historic and inspiring fashion.” Eggleston noted that while the White House is committed to granting even more commutations, only Congress can bring about lasting change.
Sentencing relief bills have been stalled in Congress, though many hope they might pass either before the November election or shortly thereafter, citing widespread bipartisan support for criminal justice reform legislation. “It is critical that both the House and Senate continue to work ... to get a bill to the President’s desk,” Eggleston stated.
There were still 11,477 commutation petitions pending as of August 11, 2016, and according to St. Thomas University law professor Mark Osler, at least 1,500 qualify for relief under the administration’s Clemency Project, implemented in 2014. [See: PLN, May 2016, p.46].
Others have noted that while Obama has granted a large number of commutations, he has been stingy with pardons – generally considered more useful in assisting former prisoners who are seeking work or want to regain their civil rights. He has issued just 70 pardons, significantly fewer than those granted during the George W. Bush, Clinton and Reagan administrations.
Former U.S. Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff, recruited from private practice to oversee the Clemency Project at the Department of Justice, quit earlier this year and expressed dissatisfaction that the pace of commutations did not match the publicity, complaining that her recommendations were often ignored.
The President apparently received the message, and when announcing the most recent batch of commutations his staff indicated the pace will continue to accelerate, promising relief of “historic proportions.”
U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he was “deeply concerned” about the number of commutations granted by the President, accusing Obama of “blatant usurpation” of congressional authority. However, the right to issue pardons is expressly granted to the president by Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution.
Of the 214 commutations announced in August 2016, sixty-seven were issued to prisoners serving life sentences – the vast majority for non-violent drug offenses. To date, Obama has granted more commutations than the past nine presidents combined.
Sources: www.thehill.com, www.usatoday.com, www.whitehouse.gov, www.theguardian.com, Washington Post, www.justice.gov
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login