By Chris Zoukis
President Obama’s campaign to provide commutations of sentences of federal prisoners continues, with his fifth batch this year, and the second for the month, issued August 30. The most recent group of 111 commutations raised the president’s total to 673 during his time in office, with 325 coming just this August. That monthly total established President Obama as having issued more sentences commutations in a single month that any previous president has in a single year.
White House news releases point out that the 325 commutations issued by the president this August exceed the annual commutations granted by any of his predecessors, and his 673 commutations to date surpass the total for the ten previous presidents combined. The most recent group of commutations included 35 federal inmates serving life sentences, keeping life sentences commuted by President Obama to roughly a third of the total (214 of 673).
At the end of August, the Obama administration had received nearly 27,000 commutation requests, granted 673, denied about 11,000 and had about 12,300 still pending. According to USA Today, the White House without publicity rejected 2,227 commutation applications on August 8.
Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates predicts the backlog will be cleared before the Obama administration ends in January. At that rate, sentence commutations under Obama could exceed the 773 issued by Calvin Coolidge, or even the all-time record of 1,366 set by Woodrow Wilson.
Though civil liberties and criminal justice reform advocates hailed the mounting numbers of presidential commutations, the administration’s actions drew critical fire from some quarters. Some law enforcement groups, such as the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys. Its president, Steve Cook, charged the most recent commutations show the president is not holding to the announced standards for his clemency initiative.
Cook charged that, despite promises the Obama administration’s clemency initiative would focus on non-violent, low-level offenders, the recent commutations have included one inmate headed Miami operations for a drug trafficking ring that imported 9,000 kilograms of cocaine into the U.S., six others who had been convicted as drug kingpins, and another who was convicted of owning a sawed-off shotgun. He described the trend of actions under the clemency program as getting “worse and worse.”
The Clemency Initiative 2014 announced by the Department of Justice in April of that year invited clemency petitions from federal inmates Volunteers from five non-profit groups and practicing lawyers were recruited to help prepare and screen clemency applications for the program.
As announced, the program set detailed eligibility standards: to be considered for sentence commutations, inmates would have to have already served at least 10 years in federal prison; been charged with relatively low-level and non-violent offenses, with no previous serious convictions or ties to gangs or drug cartels; received a sentence which subsequent law changes would have made substantially less stringent, and shown good conduct while incarcerated.
Some Capitol Hill Republicans, including even some who have called for criminal sentencing reform, have also faulted the administration’s clemency actions as further evidence of the president’s penchant for bypassing Congress.