On Monday, July 13, 2015, President Barack Obama announced that he would commute the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders held in federal prisons. Two of these convictions appear to be for marijuana only offenses. He also announced that he would visit federal prisoners in El Reno, Oklahoma on July 15.
Activists applaud the move but look beyond the fortunate 46. In conversation with MJINews, Amanda Reiman, Manager, Marijuana Law and Policy, at the Drug Policy Alliance, commented:
“It’s commendable that the president is willing to visit a prison and to commute the sentences of 46 of the tens of thousands of people sitting in prison for nonviolent drug offenses. But it is also egregious that it had to get to this point—that we had to wait until we were incarcerating more of our citizens than any other country in the world, and that we had to wait until 20 percent of African-American children will experience having a parent in prison. I was shocked when I heard that Obama is the first sitting president to see inside our prisons. Hopefully, this sets a precedent.”
What Clemency Means
For the fortunate 46, it means that their prison terms will end on November 10, 2015. Many have been incarcerated for more than 10 years under harsh sentencing guidelines that courts no longer use. Unlike a pardon, however, clemency does not erase a criminal record. Even after their release, these ex-offenders will still face the barriers in housing and employment, both of which increase the risk of further arrests. Nothing will replace the lost years.
Tip of the Iceberg
According to the ACLU, marijuana arrests account for over half of all drug arrests in the United States. Of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88 percent were for simply having marijuana.
To date, the president has commuted the sentences of 89 people, surpassing the combined number of commutations granted by the previous four presidents. More grants of clemency are expected. Nonetheless, the president is expected to reach only a small fraction of the 7,900 petitions still pending.
Federal drug prisoners are only the tip of the iceberg. Many of those convicted of drug offenses are held in state prisons under state laws. Those offers of clemency or pardon must come from a governor. Many, including Gov. Jerry Brown of California and Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware, have stepped up to the challenge. Others, notably Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, have been notably silent.
Policy Changes Going Forward
In a fiery speech to the NAACP in Philadelphia on July 14, the president called for sweeping criminal justice reform, including changes to reduce unduly harsh sentences, eliminate disparities in the way justice is applied and lessen taxpayer costs to house prisoners. Since Congress enacted mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes in the 1980s, the federal prison population has grown from 24,000 to more than 214,000, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group seeking sentencing changes.
Clemency and pardons are not the answer to a continuing policy problem. As Betty Aldworth, Executive Director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, remarked to MJINews:
“What about those people who will be convicted today under broken, misguided drug laws? Chipping away at this problem 46 commutations and one prison visit at a time isn’t enough. Congress must face up to the harms the drug war has caused our communities and commit to comprehensive drug law reform based in evidence, compassion, and reason.”
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have already decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use.
On the federal level, efforts to reform the justice system have the support of more than just the usual cadre of liberals and marijuana activists. Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul, the libertarian-minded presidential candidate, and David and Charles Koch, the industrialist brothers who have spent millions on conservative causes, have also joined the fray. Hopes for justice reform run high once more.