*Originally published on RYOT.org on July 8th, 2015 by Sean Sawyer*
President Obama is set to pardon dozens of non-violent drug offenders in the next few weeks. Thanks in part to an initiative set in 2014. Obama’s pardons will be able to kickoff the unofficial judiciary reform that both sides of the aisle have been yearning for.
The deputy attorney general, James M. Cole, began the initiative last year as judiciary reform started to become more widely accepted. “I’d seen a number of them where the sentences seemed very high for the conduct and it noted that the judge at the time of sentencing thought the sentence was too high. We looked at that and thought this really isn’t supplanting the judge,” said Cole.
Since the initiative to pardon low-level criminals began, the White House has been flooded with potential candidates. Lawyers and law firms have joined forces to create such groups as the Clemency Project 2014. This project alone has been sorting through over 30,000 applicants. The Justice Department has received nearly 7,000 applicants, causing the White House to ask for more funding to the department hoping to increase the funding from Congress from $3.9 million to $5.9 million.
By the end of the month, Obama will have doubled the number of pardons he has granted to over 80 pardons. The number of pardons has exponentially gone up after being put on a recent fast track. Obama gave 8 pardons in December, 22 in March, and hopefully 44 this month which would be the most ever by a president at one time.
Many of the lower drug charges have earned extremely long sentences since the War on Drugs began in 1971 when Nixon called drugs the biggest concern for America. Nixon earned bipartisan agreement that the epidemic of drug use in America needed to be tackled. For many of those incarcerated as a result of the War on Drugs, their low-level drug crime earned them a cell and a key that got thrown away.
As a result of Washington’s crack down on drugs, the prison system shot off into a new dimension. From 1980 to 2013, the federal criminal code increased from 3,000 crimes to approximately 5,000 crimes. Over the same period, federal prison population shot up from 24,000 to 215,000 (a 795% increase) while federal spending on prisons also ascended from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion (a 595% increase).
But now in 2015, the War on Drugs is earning bipartisan agreement again…but now combatting the same policies that caused the prison system to go out of whack. On June 25th, Congress introduced the bipartisan Safe, Accountable, Fair, Effective (SAFE) Justice Act, which is sponsored by Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Bobby Scott (D-VA). The bill highlights the main problems with the current War on Drugs. The objective of the SAFE Justice Act is to reduce low-level sentences while reforming the convict. Simply throwing them in prison and releasing them back to society often fails as the criminal justice system is overflown with repeat offenders. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 30% of adult offenders released from state prisons are re-arrested within the first six months of their release. Within three years of their release, 2 out of 3 ex-inmates will be back in prison. Now, parole violators now account for 35% of new prison admissions as compared to only 17% in 1980. To combat this problem, the SAFE Justice Act will exchange shorter sentences for people who participate in specific educational and vocational programs making them better suited to be reintroduced into society. The bill also contains various reforms to protect against wrongful conviction, reduce pre-trial detentions, instituting better programs for addicts and the mentally ill, and eliminate federal criminal penalties in state jurisdictions, including penalties for actions such as drug possession.
In April, Presidential hopeful Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI), and Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) introduced a bipartisan and bicameral bill called the RESET Act. “Today, our flawed criminal justice system imposes harsh punishments for non-violent, low-level drug crimes, creating a destructive cycle of recidivism that impacts those in our most vulnerable communities. The RESET Act helps fix some of the problems facing our justice system by ensuring punishments for low-level crimes are fair. By making these commonsense changes, we can make sure resources are directed toward violent criminals and give petty offenders a better chance at becoming productive members of society,” said Senator Schatz.
Senator Schatz highlights the reason for criminal justice reform. Don’t think that Obama is just going to set any convict back on the street. It is designed to help non-violent offenders be reintroduced into society, to break the cycle of minority poverty and crime rates. Rand Paul goes on to say, “It will more closely align punishment with the severity of the offense and make it possible for someone to get a second chance after a non-violent youthful mistake, instead of a lifetime punishment.”
Instead of throwing low-level offenders into prison, which we have seen to have dramatic effects on the psychological well-being of a person, criminal justice reform seeks to rehabilitate non-violent offenders. And we have seen how the prison system can fail the innocent or non-violent offenders and how programs like We’ve Been There Done That have succeeding in rehabilitating the inmate rather than just locking them away. Small level drug offenders are thrown into prison that can psychologically ruin people. That is why the initiative to reform the system is so imperative.
It is so bipartisan that the ultra-conservative Koch Brothers has stepped across the aisle. The Conservative Koch Industries and FreedomWorks have joined with the liberal Center for American Progress and the ACLU to fund a multi-million dollar campaign to reform the system.
“Everyone is really coming together around a common purpose, but at the end of the day we are going to be measured by whether we can really make a difference,” said Christine Leonard, the coalition’s director. “Our country needs to be better on these issues.”
With each pardon, President Obama writes to the inmate “By doing so, you will affect not only your own life, but those close to you. You will also influence, through your example, the possibility that others in your circumstances get their own second chance in the future. I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong. So good luck, and Godspeed.”
There seems to be a lot of hope that reform will come to the American criminal justice program in the near future. And hopefully, President Obama’s words with resonate with the inmates and have them turn their lives around from a life of crime and help fight their addiction to further the cause.