In the same news cycle Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would free more than 20,000 inmates from his country’s prisons, President Barack Obama announced a rather less grand gesture of clemency. He commuted the sentences of eight people convicted of crack-cocaine offenses — all of whom have served at least 15 years — and used his pardon power to erase the criminal records of 13 miscellaneous ex-offenders.
Even this mingy and belated use of presidential clemency power was enough to make news. The American Civil Liberties Union noted that until then, “Obama had only pardoned 39 people and commuted only one sentence, which is the fewest by any president in recent history.”
According to the Washington Post, one of the administration’s motives was, oddly, its wish to help “eliminate overcrowding in federal prisons.”
If that’s the case, Obama is trying to bail out Lake Michigan with a paint can. The federal prison population has increased by more than 700 percent since 1980 and the number of inmates now exceeds the Bureau of Prisons bed capacity by 35 percent to 40 percent, requiring the use of contract prisons, halfway houses and other makeshifts.
Even if the president could free another batch of eight prisoners every week for a year, his mercy will still have touched only about one-fifth of 1 percent of the inmates in federal prisons. The 2 million serving time at the state level will need to look to their governors for relief.
The War on Drugs is the single biggest driver of our bloated prison population, especially at the federal level, where thousands are serving sentences under mandatory-minimum laws that put low-level nonviolent offenders behind bars for decades, or even life. Although Congress finally acted in 2010 to reduce the notorious crack/cocaine disparity responsible for many insanely long sentences — in part because of years of complaint from judges loath to be parties to injustice — it declined to apply the changes retroactively to sentences already handed down.
Another shake-up of pardon procedures is overdue. The initiative needs to come from the White House, and commuting eight sentences barely counts as a start.
Walter Olson is senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of several books on the American legal system.