Obama grants final 330 commutations to nonviolent drug offenders

As they rode in the presidential limousine to the U.S. Capitol on Inauguration Day in 2009, President George W. Bush offered some last-minute advice to President-elect Barack Obama: Announce a pardon policy early and stick to it.

“On the ride up Pennsylvania Avenue . . . I told Barack Obama about my frustrations with the pardon system,” Bush wrote in his memoir.

Obama did not seriously focus on pardons and commutations until 2014, two years into his second term. But on Thursday, his last full day in office, Obama announced 330 more commutations, for nonviolent drug offenders, bringing his total number of clemencies to 1,715. He has granted commutations to more people than the past 12 presidents combined, including 568 inmates with life sentences. He has granted 212 pardons. His final group of clemencies was the most Obama granted in a day and the most granted on one day in U.S. history.

“By restoring proportionality to unnecessarily long drug sentences, this administration has made a lasting impact on our criminal justice system,” said Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates. “With 1,715 commutations in total, this undertaking was as enormous as it was unprecedented.”

In his clemencies this week, Obama commuted the 35-year prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, the Army private convicted of stealing secret diplomatic and military documents and giving them to WikiLeaks, after deciding that Manning had served enough time. The president also granted a commutation to Oscar López Rivera, a Puerto Rican independence activist who was a member of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, a terrorist organization that killed and wounded people in the 1970s and 1980s with bomb attacks.

The commutation for López Rivera, 74, who served 35 years in prison for a conspiracy against the U.S. government, had been championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Archbishop Desmond Tutu and “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.

A Texas lawyer, who represented seven inmates who have received clemency from Obama over the past two years, praised the president Thursday for recognizing that the “criminal justice system is broken” and restoring “a sense of fairness.”

“His gracious act of mercy today sealed his clemency legacy and allowed many truly deserving men and women to be reunited with their families,” Brittany Byrd said. “I was overjoyed when I received the call from Pardon Attorney Robert Zauzmer telling me the president had granted clemency to my client, Trenton Copeland, who was being buried alive under an unduly harsh sentence of life without parole for a nonviolent drug offense. The president saved Trenton’s life today.”

But other activists expressed disappointment that Obama had not granted an early release to more inmates.

“It’s fantastic that the president is using his last days in office to continue to grant clemency to deserving prisoners,” said Julie Stewart, founder and chairman of the board of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which has been fighting for 18 years for clemency for drug offenders sentenced under the tough drug laws of the 1980s and 1990s.

“But my heart aches for those who will not make the cut,” Stewart said. “After over two years of believing they may have a chance for freedom, they now see that door of hope closing. I can’t imagine what the pall in the prisons will feel like on January 20 when President Obama leaves office.”

The Obama administration had denied 14,485 clemency petitions and 1,629 pardons, as of Jan. 3.

Among those denied clemency was Native American activist Leonard Peltier, 72, who was convicted of the fatal shooting of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and sentenced to two consecutive life terms. His supporters, including Pope Francis, pressed Obama to grant him a commutation, but their appeal was opposed by many in law enforcement, including FBI agents.

Another inmate who was denied clemency is 64-year-old Bruce Harrison, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who was awarded two Purple Hearts. Harrison, who is in Coleman prison in Florida, has health problems and has served 23 years of a 50-year sentence for his role in transporting drugs in a government sting operation.

After Harrison and other members of his motorcycle group were sentenced, several jurors said they were dismayed to learn of the long sentence that was imposed.

“If I would have been given the right to not only judge the facts in this case, but also the law and the actions taken by the government, the prosecutor, local and federal law enforcement officers connected in this case would be in jail and not the defendants,” juror Patrick L. McNeil wrote afterward.

Those who championed Harrison’s case contrasted it with Obama’s grant of clemency to Manning, who the president said had served “a tough sentence” after seven years in prison.

“Bruce has served 23 years, and the government set up the entire criminal activity,” said Andrea Strong, also of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “This is beyond disappointing. I am just heartbroken. What does he have to look forward to now? He is 64 years old. All he wanted was to come home and help raise his grandchildren. Now that dream had ended.”

Former White House counsel Kathy Ruemmler said that clemency has long been a top priority for Obama. The president frequently complained to her during his first term that he was not receiving enough recommendations from the Justice Department to grant clemency. Shortly after the 2012 election, she said, he directed her to work with the Justice Department to increase the number of clemency applications for him to consider.

“He told me to be creative and aggressive,” Ruemmler said. She then worked with then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder and Deputy Attorney General James Cole to set up a process to increase the number of clemency petitions coming from the U.S. pardon attorney.

“This would not have happened organically,” Ruemmler said. “This effort came directly from President Obama and is an important part of his legacy.”

President Obama speaks during his final presidential news conference Jan. 18 at the White House. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

President Obama Grants 330 Commutations in Historic Final Act

President Obama capped an extraordinary week in clemency activity Thursday when he shortened the prison sentences of 330 drug offenders, the largest single batch of White House commutations in history.

The announcement, less than 24 hours before he leaves office, came two days after Obama handed out 209 commutations and 64 pardons, part of his unprecedented effort to show mercy to drug offenders serving epic prison terms. Obama has now commuted the sentences of 1,715 people, more than any of his predecessors.

"The President set out to reinvigorate clemency, and he has done just that," White House Chief Counsel Neil Eggleston said in a statement.

But, for advocates, there is a more somber side to Obama's initiative: the thousands of inmates whose petitions were denied, the thousands who are still waiting for a decision, and the relatively small number of pardon applications he approved. The future of his project remains in doubt under Donald Trump.

The clemency push came late in Obama's presidency, as he granted just a few dozen in the first six years. Then, in 2014, after becoming more actively supportive of criminal justice reform, he put out a call for applications from nonviolent offenders who were sentenced to prison before the easing of notoriously harsh mandatory minimum laws in 2010.

That triggered a deluge of petitions. Obama solicited help from the nation's bar and from advocacy organizations, but the program struggled through a backlog. Lawyers in the Justice Department reportedly worked around the clock in recent months to get through the stack.

Obama's clemency grants came in large batches, hundreds at a time, accompanied by statements that framed his effort as a bid to become the most merciful president of all time.

But his denials were even more voluminous. The effect on applicants and their lawyers was like emotional whiplash.

On Wednesday, sandwiched between Obama's two ballyhooed clemency announcements, the Justice Department quietly released the names of more than 2,000 applicants who'd been denied.

James Felman, a Florida defense lawyer who represents dozens of inmates who applied for clemency, celebrated Tuesday when he learned that four had received commutations. On Wednesday, he learned that a dozen others had been denied, and he mourned. On Thursday, Felman was elated again, this time for four more clients who were on Obama's list.

A dozen of Felman's clients still have heard nothing. Three are serving life sentences.

And then there's the matter of reform. Advocates point out that clemency does nothing to change policies that led to mass incarceration. Efforts to ease those laws beyond the 2010 changes have stalled in Congress.

Felman, who won commutation for 44 total clients, called Obama's initiative "the single most gratifying professional experience I've ever undertaken."

He added: "I have so much gratitude for the president for having the courage and fortitude for doing this. But we know this is not a substitute for reforming the laws that got us here, and we still haven't accomplished that."

Obama grants 330 more commutations, bringing total to a record 1,715

President Obama commuted the sentences of 330 more federal inmates Thursday, capping an unprecedented clemency effort that has now released 1,715 prisoners — more than any other president in history.

The clemency grants announced on Obama's last full day in office set a one-day record.

"Proud to make this one of my final actions as President. America is a nation of second chances, and 1,715 people deserved that shot," Obama tweeted Thursday.

The clemency initiative, which began in 2014, was targeted at drug dealers who received mandatory-minimum sentences during the War on Drugs from the 1980s to the 2000s.

But the effort ultimately fell far short of the 10,000 clemency grants former attorney general Eric Holder predicted when the initiative began. And while Obama set a record for granting commutations, he also set a record for denials. As of the end of 2016, he had denied 14,485 petitions and closed another 4,242 without action — an overall grant rate of 5.9%, a couple of percentage points higher than many of his predecessors.

"The president set out to reinvigorate clemency, and he has done just that," White House counsel Neil Eggleston said in a statement.

It's unclear how big of a backlog in clemency cases President-elect Donald Trump will inherit. But Justice Department officials had promised to give an up-or-down determination on every clemency initiative case it received by August.

“I’m proud to say we kept that promise," Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates said in a statement. "This undertaking was as enormous as it was unprecedented, and I am incredibly grateful to the teams of people who devoted their time and energy to the project since its inception."

Obama's final list of clemency grants included no more full pardons, meaning his final pardon tally will stand at 212 — fewer than any modern president except Presidents George H.W. Bush, who granted 74 and George W. Bush, who granted 189. (It was the younger Bush who gave Obama this advice in the limo ride to the Capitol on his Inauguration Day eight years ago. "Announce a pardon policy early on, and stick to it.")

Before that, it was the fewest of any full-term president since James Buchanan's 108, said pardon scholar P.S. Ruckman Jr. "The word 'pathetic' comes to mind," he said.

The grants on Thursday also did not include any of the more high-profile political cases, like former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, and former congressman Chaka Fattah, all serving time on corruption charges.

With Thursday's action, the Clemency Project 2014 also closes its doors. The coalition of defense attorneys who had agreed to help inmates with their cases says it completed work on all the applications it received.

"Of course we'd be delighted to continue, but we have to wait to see whether the next president says whether he will or will not pursue this," he said.

President-elect Trump hasn't talked about his pardon policy, and his nominee for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, defended the mandatory minimum sentences that Obama commuted with his actions.

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