In commuting the sentences of 22 federal drug offenders Tuesday, President Barack Obama has begun to take the unfettered power of executive clemency embedded in the Constitution to the place where it belongs. "I've been a cynic on the Obama administration for a while," University of St. Thomas School of Law professor Mark Osler told me, but with these commutations, which doubled the president's total, "it's hard for me to be cynical about what's happening today." Finally, the administration is demonstrating how pardon power should be used, with, as Osler put it, "the most powerful person in the world freeing the least powerful person in the world."
In a nice personal touch, Obama sent letters to the 22, urging them to act on their "capacity to make good choices" and "prove the doubters wrong."
In his first term, Obama commuted but one sentence -- half the meager two meted out in the first term of President George W. Bush. Pardon Power blogger P.S. Ruckman charged that inmates seeking mercy from Obama stood "a better chance of getting hit by lightning." Apologists justified Obama's sorry record as an exercise in political self-defense. No politician, after all, wants to be tied to a preventable crime spree as former Massachusetts Gov. (and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee) Michael Dukakis was to Willie Horton -- a convicted murderer who, in 1987, raped and assaulted a woman after he was furloughed from a Bay State prison.
President Bill Clinton's pardons unfortunately cast a dark shadow over the process. To his credit, Clinton freed a number of low-level drug offenders. But then Clinton turned the selfless gift of mercy into a tawdry political spoil when he issued a pardon to fugitive gazillionaire Marc Rich and other politically connected unworthies.
There always has been a clear path to doing clemency right. A savvy president would use the process regularly to correct sentencing excesses. After decades of a drug war run amok, the demand for relief is pent up. Seven of the new batch of commutations went to inmates serving life sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Yes, life sentences.
After years with sparse mercy, Obama's Department of Justice announced a new clemency initiative with tough objective criteria last year. To qualify, inmates should be low-level nonviolent offenders who have served at least 10 years in prison with good conduct records.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association and Families Against Mandatory Minimums helped form Clemency Project 2014 to assist the feds. The group says it worked with four of Tuesday's 22 recipients. That's nice, except what looks like progress may in reality be a new bureaucracy that is unaccountable to the public and works at a glacial pace. FAMM's Mike Riggs thinks thousands could qualify. But at this pace, they could die in prison.
Steve Cook of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys told me his group is going through public records. Already they see that one recipient was convicted of possessing an illegal firearm and intent to distribute crack cocaine. Those I describe as nonviolent offenders Cook sees as "high-level traffickers." I hear that, but even if they're not kingpins, they are serving mass murderer sentences. That's wrong.