The September 12–19, 2016, issue of Time, in its Ticker section on page 12, has a short entry: “President Obama commuted the sentences of 111 prisoners on Aug. 30, bringing the number of early releases he has granted to 673—more than the previous 10 Presidents combined. Most were drug offenders.”
Those who appreciate the unfairness of the harsh mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines baked into the punitive sentencing guidelines of the “War on Drugs” (the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986), clap with one hand for the president’s actions. (There is a famous Zen koan (philosophical riddle) that asks, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” ) The applause is in a vacuum largely because there’s no context given to the executive action reported by Time or, for that matter, any known mainstream media outlet.
Digging deeper into the president’s commutation of sentences, we find a good background review of the mechanisms and standards involved in clemency orders. An August 30, 2016, Associated Press article written by Kevin Freking is instructive. From it we can glean the following elements to be taken into consideration when granting clemency:
- whether the sentence is connected to a nonviolent drug offense, without significant ties to gangs or cartels
- whether the sentence constitutes excessive punishment
- whether a clemency order would shed light on excessive federal drug sentencing
- whether the inmate has served at least ten years of his or her sentence and exhibited good conduct while serving time
- whether the drug offense sentence would be substantially lower today than it was at the time of the original offense
Additionally, each applicant’s merit is reviewed to determine the offender’s readiness for a second chance.
To help us better understand this aspect of prison reform, the second hand clapping puts a face on the men and women who are benefactors of the president’s humanitarian rethinking of long-term incarceration (including serving life sentences) for drug-related crimes. Obama’s action provides fertile journalistic grounds to engage in prison reform by drawing attention to the underlying reasons for the president’s humanitarian acts.
Learn More about Mandatory Sentencing Abuses
Visit these websites for more information:
- Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). According to FAMM’s website:
FAMM is the most effective sentencing reform advocacy group in the United States. Since 1991, FAMM has worked to eliminate mandatory sentencing laws and promote sentencing policies rooted in the fundamental American values of individualized justice, fairness, proportionality, and respect for liberty and due process. By sharing stories of families and prisoners, we highlight the human costs of mandatory sentencing laws, and advocate for more efficient and effective protection of public safety.
- Clemency Project 2014. The project works with inmates currently serving federal sentences, who, by operation of law, would have received substantially lower sentences if convicted of the same offense today. Its website, like that of FAMM, is highly educational and eye-opening. The project provides lawyers free of charge to applicants who must meet two preliminary requirements: they have served ten years of their sentence and their crime has no disqualifying feature, such as violence.
Please learn more about mandatory sentences as another aspect of much-needed prison reform. The two organizations I’ve highlighted provide information that educates, informs, and illustrates concrete opportunities to get involved to effectuate change.
Please share your thoughts about clemency and mandatory sentencing requirements in the comments section.
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