.Obama’s Drug War Pardons Running Short on Time

Thousands of people incarcerated for drug offenses could go free if President Obama acts decisively

Thousands of people incarcerated for drug offenses could go free if President Obama acts decisively.

Some 214 Federal drug war prisoners saw their sentences commuted this month as President Barack Obama took another step toward fulfilling his pledge to to cut draconian drug sentences and free prisoners serving decades-long stretches for non-violent drug crimes.

“The power to grant pardons and commutations … embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws,” the president said.

Those whose sentences were commuted will walk out of prison Dec. 1. Obama has now commuted the sentences of 562 men and women sentenced under harsh federal drug laws, including 197 people doing life for drug offenses. That’s more commutations than the last nine presidents combined.

But it’s not close to the number whose sentences Obama could commute under a program announced in 2014 by then-Attorney General Eric Holder and Deputy Assistant Attorney General James Cole. They called on nonviolent federal drug war prisoners to seek clemency in April 2014.

Under Holder’s criteria for clemency, low-level drug offenders who had served at least 10 years, had good conduct in prison, had no significant criminal history or connection to gangs, cartels, or organized crime, and who would probably receive a “substantially lower sentence” if convicted of the same offense today, would be eligible for sentence cuts.

Of roughly 100,000 federal drug prisoners—nearly half the entire federal prison population—more than 36,000 applied for clemency. Many of them did not meet the criteria, but the Justice Department has reviewed nearly 9,500 who did. Of those, only 562 have actually been granted clemency; applications are still pending for nearly 9,000 more. (An additional 8,000 pending applications are being handled by a consortium of private attorneys for the Clemency Project.)

Many of those might not make it to Obama’s desk before the clock runs out on his term, because the Department of Justice has stumbled in administering the program. That would undercut Obama’s legacy of redressing drug war injustice. There are now only six months to go in his presidency; nearly 18,000 prisoners who were told to seek clemency are still waiting for a response.

Phillip Smith is editor of the AlterNet Drug Reporter and author of the Drug War Chronicle.

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