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1,900 Second Chances: President Obama’s Clemency Initiative

1,900 Second Chances: President Obama’s Clemency Initiative

Jail Cells

On Thursday, January 19, President Obama commuted sentences for 330 federal inmates. This comes just a couple of days after the White House announced that President Obama had granted pardons or commuted the sentences of 273 people on Tuesday, January 17. While these latest announcements have garnered significant attention because of some of the individuals who received clemency and because they came in the final days of the Obama administration, they also mark the latest chapter of an initiative the President started in 2014 that has given second chances to 1,927 people.

One of this week’s clemency recipients is Chelsea Manning, a former army private who was arrested nearly seven years ago for leaking classified military and diplomatic information. This case has raised significant questions about the treatment of transgender inmates in U.S. military prison, as many have argued that Manning, who is transgender, has been unable to receive the care she needs. Advocates for her release have also argued that Manning’s 35-year sentence is disproportionate compared to sentences received by others who have been convicted of similar crimes.

All presidents have the constitutional power to grant clemency through two mechanisms: granting pardons, which revoke an individual’s conviction and sets them free; and issuing commutations, which shorten a prison sentence while leaving the conviction intact. After sustaining criticism for his limited use of these powers during his first term, President Obama launched a “clemency initiative” focused mostly on non-violent drug offenders. A key goal of this initiative is to use clemency as a means of reducing the overall prison and jail population, which has ballooned to over two million since the 1980s. Many of those who received a pardon or commutation were sentenced under harsh mandatory minimums that have a disproportionate racial impact and deprive judges of the ability to respond to the unique circumstances of each case. About a third of those who received commutations had been sentenced to life in prison, often as a result of “three-strikes” laws that mandate life imprisonment for the third offense in some drug cases.

This initiative is part of a broader strategy to change the reality of mass incarceration that has been driven in part by mandatory minimum laws. In 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine cases from 100:1 to 18:1. In the 114th Congress, a bipartisan group of legislators led an effort to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders and allow these lower sentences to be applied retroactively with a judge’s approval. While this legislation did not receive a floor vote, both House and Senate committees voted in favor of these reform bills with bipartisan support.

The Reform Jewish tradition teaches us to support second chances for those who have erred. The prophet Ezekiel said: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (33:11). As we work diligently to make sure that criminal justice reform remains a priority in the coming years, we know that congressional action is critical if we are to diminish the impact of harsh sentencing. Tell your Member of Congress to support bipartisan criminal justice reform today.

Jacob Kraus is the campaign organizer at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, leading the Reform Movement’s Urgency of Now campaigns for criminal justice reform and immigrant justice. Based at the Union for Reform Judaism offices in New York City, Jacob grew up in Cincinnati, OH, where his family is affiliated with Rockdale Temple. He is a 2015 graduate of Macalester College.

Jacob Kraus

Published: 1/19/2017