Granting more clemencies could be a powerful way for President Obama to fight mass incarceration—but there isn't much time left.
That's the message a group of 41 criminal justice activists, lawyers, and law professors sent the president in an open letter Tuesday. The group includes author Michelle Alexander, former administration official Van Jones, and the top leadership of Harvard Law School's criminal justice program.
They urge Obama, who now has fewer than seven months left in office, to pick up the pace on granting clemency. According to Department of Justice statistics, there were 11,861 clemency petitions pending as of June 6. The advocates estimate that at least 1,500 of those meet the criteria Obama has laid out in the past for clemency—long sentences and convictions on non-violent drug charges.
"Many of these individuals have already served decades behind bars for non-violent drug offenses," the letter reads. "Their families have been torn apart and their chances for happy, successful lives curtailed. Nothing can undo the injustice of their original sentences, but failing to grant the commutations for which they are eligible will add a second injustice."
Many see the presidential clemency power as a key tool in the struggle to fight mass incarceration in America. The letter lauds Obama's leadership on criminal justice reforms, and notes that he's commuted the sentences of 348 inmates over the past seven years, many who were serving life in prison. But the advocates say it's not enough—and it's far fewer than the 10,000 inmates released through clemency that administration officials once predicted.
Obama granted only a handful of clemencies during the prime of his presidency. Earlier this year, his pardon attorney resigned, saying in a letter that her office had been choked by bureaucracy and a lack of resources. This year, Obama has been granting clemencies in more frequent batches of inmates, the latest earlier this month.
"There is still time to accelerate the process so your clemency initiative fulfills the goals you set," the letter-writers say. "But we believe that only your personal leadership will break the bureaucratic logjam that is plaguing the program. No person in prison who meets the criteria for relief should still be behind bars when you leave office. We hope you will move quickly to ensure everyone in your administration acts with the proper diligence to make that promise a reality."
The most prominent of the letter's authors is probably Alexander, whose 2010 book The New Jim Crow is seen as one of the strongest critiques of our country's mass incarceration system, (Just yesterday, the book was cited by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in a fiery dissent on a case about an illegal police stop.)
Mark Osler, a professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis who studies presidential clemency and who signed the letter, told me he hoped the president took the message seriously. “They don’t want there to be a sense of urgency in this,” he said about the White House. "But there's a lot left to do."
In an email, White House spokesperson Brandi Hoffine said that Obama will continue to issue commutations throughout the rest of his presidency. "Through his actions and his words, President Obama has demonstrated a commitment to the commutations process not seen by any other president in the modern era," she said. "To date, he has issued more commutations than the past seven presidents combined."
That's not quite true: President Gerald Ford granted clemency to more than 13,600 Vietnam War draft dodgers. Moreover, Osler pointed out, past presidents—at least, those before George W. Bush—weren't dealing with federal prison populations of over 200,000 people.
Here's the full letter:
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.