Obama’s potential clemency push: A temporary solution for a long-term issue

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President Barack Obama listens as Vietnamese Communist party secretary general Nguyen Phu Trong speaks in the Oval Office of the White House, on Tuesday, July 7, 2015, in Washington. Trong is the de facto leader of Vietnam despite holding no official government post, and is visiting Washington to boost ties 20 years after the U.S. and Vietnam normalized relations following the Vietnam War. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Barack Obama (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Obama promised to use clemency power “more aggressively” during the remainder of his time in office, and will likely make true on that promise within the next few weeks. The president is expected to issue orders releasing dozens of nonviolent drug offenders from federal prison by the end of the month. If he does so, he will commute more sentences than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson left office in 1969.

Obama’s expected commutations follow former Deputy Attorney James Cole’s January 2014 announcement urging those in the legal profession to provide free service to federal prisoners who, if convicted today, would likely receive significantly lower sentences. According to the Justice Department, prisoners who submit a petition for commutation should also have no “significant ties to large-scale organizations,” have served at least 10 years of their sentence and have no significant criminal history or history of violence.

Like many presidents before him, Obama was hesitant to use his clemency power at first and granted just one commutation during his first term. He did, however, sign the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) into law in 2010. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “the FSA represents a decade-long, and truly bipartisan, effort to reduce the racial disparities caused by the draconian crack cocaine sentencing laws and to restore confidence in the criminal justice system—particularly in communities of color.”

Signing the FSA was evidently not enough to counter what many Republicans and Democrats have admitted to be overly harsh sentences for nonviolent crimes in the past. Throughout his second term, Obama has used his clemency power significantly more and commuted a total of 43 prisoners’ sentences thus far. If, as expected, Obama releases dozens of nonviolent drug offenders from federal prison within the next few weeks, his total number of granted commutations could be greater than 80 by the end of the month.

DePaul senior Laura Pausch believes this dramatic increase is a direct result of the president’s short time left in office.

“If anything, (Obama’s increase in use of clemency power) is probably more about his evaluation of his time in office, because prior to this if he had supported these causes it could have affected his ability to run for another (term),” Pausch said.

Even with Obama’s expected commutations approaching, it is apparent that the president cannot singlehandedly repair all wrongdoings of the past. In fact, former criminal justice reporter and founder of the Clemency Report website Dennis Cauchon said the clemency process itself has become increasingly difficult.

“(The presidential clemency power) is one line in the U.S. Constitution that has no procedures to it, no bureaucracy,” Cauchon told Buzzfeed News. “In class lawyer fashion, though, it’s become an extremely cumbersome process.”

With more than 30,000 inmates waiting reviews of their applications and less than two years left in Obama’s second term as president, a permanent solution will be necessary to shorten extreme sentences and ensure they will not continue in the future.