President Barack Obama has reportedly used his clemency power more than any other U.S, president, since Woodrow Wilson – commuting more than 900 sentences. Still, as his administration enters a “midnight period” (a phase between November 21 and January 20 when executive branch legislation can be made without going through Congress) prominent Black leaders, including political commentator Van Jones and the Clemency Project are pushing Obama to ask the Justice Department to reduce prison stays for the nearly 4,000 federal prisoners who are believed to be wrongfully convicted.
President Barack Obama is being urged to grant clemency to the nearly 4,000 federal prisoners who are believed to be wrongfully convicted. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
The Clemency Project, a pro-bono effort of lawyers across the country working to file petitions, stood with Jones Nov. 15, outside the U.S. Department of Justice to publicly challenge Obama. Saying they had submitted more than 2,150 cases to the Office of the Pardon Attorney since 2014, of which only 469 had received clemency, Jones insisted more was required.
“There is nothing more urgent than freedom,” Jones told the crowd of about 50 people, organized by the #ClemencyNow campaign. “The Obama administration has committed itself to more clemencies than any other administration in American history, and yet there is more work needs to be done.”
Approximately 46 percent of federal prisoners are serving time for drug-related crimes. Many were sentenced under outdated mandatory minimums established in the 1980s for crack and powder cocaine. Someone caught with one gram of crack cocaine went to jail for the same amount of time as someone caught with 100 grams of powder cocaine. These sentences disproportionately penalized people of color – and helped lead to an explosion in America’s prison population.
In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, or FSA, and narrowed the sentencing disparity between the two forms of the drug. However, the FSA did not apply to anyone already convicted under the older laws. As of 2013, more than 17,000 federal prisoners were serving sentences for crack convictions.
“Meaningful criminal justice reform is desperately needed in Congress – but leadership has failed to act this year. Meanwhile, thousands of drug offenders are languishing in prison under outdated and unduly harsh laws. Clemency from the president is their only hope for freedom,” #ClemencyNOW Campaign Director Brittany Byrd told the crowd. “We urge the president to continue down this path, granting clemencies in a momentous and encouraging manner. He should leave no deserving individual behind bars when he leaves office.”
William Berg, a returning citizen from Ward 7 who joined the #ClemencyNOW rally, told the AFRO that many Washingtonians currently incarcerated fell victim to heavy-handed drug sentences and ‘three strikes’ legislation that targeted Black families. “There were plenty of drugs being sold and consumed on Capitol Hill and in Georgetown, but enforcement efforts began and ended in predominantly poor, Black communities where the drug trade was a matter of survival,” Berg said. “That type of selective enforcement, under mandatory 25-year sentences requires a different level of restorative justice, especially since White people committing these same crimes today, are being pushed toward treatment and slaps on the wrists. There are people who deserve to come home,” Jones said.