During his time in office, President Obama has taken an increased interest in the plight of America's criminal justice system. Ever since the 1980s, when state and federal politicians adopted “tough on crime” personas to win voters, our country's jails have become filled with inmates serving lengthy prison times for nonviolent offenses. Most of these are sentences for drug crimes.
However, having to deal with a Congress that has seemed uninterested in changing things, President Obama has struggled to fix these sentencing provisions that are punishing people beyond what they deserve. Recently, though, he has resorted to another method of easing the pain: The presidential pardon.
President Obama Sets Records for Presidential Pardons
In the past couple of years, President Obama has increasingly resorted to using his presidential power to pardon criminals who have been convicted of nonviolent federal drug offenses. This power, guaranteed by the Constitution in Article II, Section 2, allows the president to wipe out or reduce the sentence of a criminal convicted of a federal crime. The practice had been used sparingly by presidents in the past, but Obama has resurrected it to do what he can, without the approval of the Republican-controlled Congress.
The latest batch of sentences that President Obama commuted came on October 6, 2016, when he commuted the sentences of over 100 more inmates who had been sentenced to lengthy prison times for nonviolent drug offenses. This batch of commuted sentences raises the total of sentences Obama has commuted to 774, which is more than the previous 11 presidents combined.
The use of the presidential pardon power is a new one, for Obama. Out of these 774, 590 of Obama's commutations were issued in 2016, alone.
Presidential Pardons Only a Temporary Fix
Unfortunately, pardoning convicted criminals who are facing decades behind bars for peddling drugs does not change much, in the long term. It might relieve some of the stress on the overcrowded prison system in the here and now, but it does not change the fact that too many people are being sent into it for nonviolent offenders and held there for most of their adult lives.
A more lasting solution would be to fix the root of the problem: The overly-harsh minimum jail sentences that underlie entirely too many of our nation's drug laws. Unfortunately, only Congress can do this, and its members don't seem too keen on ensuring that convicted criminals are only punished in accordance with the crime they've committed.
Criminal Defense Attorney William T. Bly
Drug crimes are a unique aspect of our criminal justice system because, taken alone, there is no victim. Despite the fact that no one really suffers directly from someone else's drug escapade, our laws severely punish people for dealing and possessing countless substances that our politicians have deemed dangerous. These decisions are often made without any scientific evidence in support of them. While President Obama's attempt to ease the situation by commuting numerous drug-related sentences is a step in the right direction, it is far from the solution that we need.