President Barack Obama is looking for convicts worthy of his rarely used power to commute sentences.

Obama has directed the Justice Department to improve its clemency recommendation process and recruit more applications from convicts, White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler said Tuesday…

Obama commuted only one sentence in his first term, causing critics to charge that he was being too stingy with his power. Last December, Obama cut time for eight defendants sentenced under old guidelines that treated convictions for crack cocaine offenses more harshly than those involving the powder form of the drug. Critics blamed the disparity for longer sentences being handed to black convicts, and Obama changed the sentencing standards for future cases beginning in 2010.

***

Thousands and thousands of people like Scrivner are serving punishingly long sentences in federal prison based on draconian policies that were a relic of the “tough on crime” antidrug laws of the ’80s and ’90s. Thirty years after skyrocketing urban violence and drug use sparked politicians to impose longer and longer sentences for drug crimes, America now incarcerates a higher rate of its population than any other country in the world. This dubious record has finally provoked a bipartisan backlash against such stiff penalties. The old laws are slowly being repealed.

Now, in his final years in office, Obama has trained his sights on prisoners like Scrivner, and wants to use his previously dormant pardon power as part of a larger strategy to restore fairness to the criminal-justice system. A senior administration official tells Yahoo News the president could grant clemency to “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of people locked up for nonviolent drug crimes by the time he leaves office — a stunning number that hasn’t been seen since Gerald Ford extended amnesty to Vietnam draft dodgers in the 1970s.

The scope of the new clemency initiative is so large that administration officials are preparing a series of personnel and process changes to help them manage the influx of petitions they expect Obama to approve…

Obama has granted just 10 commutations out of 10,000 requests. He granted 52 of the 1,600 pardon requests that made it to his desk.

***

Later this week, the deputy attorney general will announce new criteria that the department will consider when recommending applications for the President’s review. This new and improved approach will make the criteria for clemency recommendation more expansive. This will allow the Department of Justice and the president to consider requests from a larger field of eligible individuals.

Once these reforms go into effect, we expect to receive thousands of additional applications for clemency. And we at the Department of Justice will meet this need by assigning potentially dozens of lawyers – with backgrounds in both prosecution and defense – to review applications and provide the rigorous scrutiny that all clemency applications require.

As a society, we pay much too high a price whenever our system fails to deliver the just outcomes necessary to deter and punish crime, to keep us safe, and to ensure that those who have paid their debts have a chance to become productive citizens.

***

As has been the case with many recent Presidents, Barack Obama has been rather parsimonious with the use of his pardon power. As he neared the end of his second year in office, I noted that he had pardoned more turkeys than people, and at the end of year he finally issued his first pardons of less than a dozen people. As of December 31, 2013, President Obama had pardoned a total of 61 people, an average of 12 pardons per year over the five years he’d been in office. That put him on a pace to issue the fewest pardons and/or grants of clemency of any American President going back to the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. If the Administration actually does go through with this plan, it would more than make up for Obama’s stinginess with the pardon power up until now, and could potentially put up him there with FDR himself, who granted nearly 3,400 pardons or grants of clemency during the 12 years he was in the White House.

While the article doesn’t make clear exactly what criteria the Obama Administration is looking at in making these grants of clemency, it appears that they will be targeted at people who have been convicted of non-violent drug related crimes under Federal Law, which essentially means possession and related charges. Presumably, they will not be granted to people who were arrested with large quantities of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, or other illegal drugs to the point where it was obvious that they were engaged in drug trafficking. These non-violent offenders have been among the worst victims of the Federal Government’s War On Drugs because they have seen their lives ruined thanks to overly zealous law enforcement officers and sentencing guidelines that even Federal Judges complain about. If there is another class of Federal offenders who are more worthy of consideration for a pardon or clemency I’d be hard pressed to find it.

***

Congress is currently discussing comprehensive, bipartisan legislation that would cut minimum sentences by half, give judges more sentencing discretion, and retroactively apply new crack cocaine sentencing standards to prisoners convicted under previous requirements.

One bill, sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, would cut by half the five-, 10-, and 20-year minimums now required for first and second drug-sale offenses…

Some federal prosecutors have pushed back on efforts to change mandatory sentencing laws, arguing that they believe they are an effective tool in wringing out information involving important drug kingpin cases or major murders…

“Prosecutors’ fears are that our record low level of serious crime in America will begin to rise and nobody will monitor the cost of re-arresting offenders when they commit new crimes, and re-prosecuting them,” says Scott Burns, head of the National District Attorneys Association. “Bottom line, if it ain’t broke why fix it?”

***

At a congressional hearing earlier this month, Holder fielded complaints about the new commutation effort from a Republican who thought it too aggressive, and a Democrat who said it didn’t go far enough.

“Can you give me any precedent of previous attorney generals’ offices who have solicited petitions for pardons or clemency limited to a particular category of crime?” Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) asked. He wondered why DOJ wasn’t seeking clemency applications from those convicted of “white-collar crime or campaign finance laws or a host of other areas that have been over-criminalized, all who also do the overcrowding that we’re very concerned with, but have a much lower recidivism rate.”

Holder, a former judge and chief federal prosecutor for Washington D.C., said the clemency effort was aimed specifically at sentences driven by laws setting mandatory minimums for drug crimes. “We’re dealing with a particular problem, and that is that I think the pendulum swung a little too far in the ’80s,” he said…

”The President has authority to grant clemency to certain individuals who are no longer dangerous to the community. But I hope President Obama is not seeking to change sentencing policy unilaterally,” Hatch said. “Congress, not the President, has authority to make sentencing policy. He should continue to work with Congress rather than once again going it alone, and I’m willing to work with the President on these issues.”

***

The way our system deals with bad laws is to change them by legislative repeal or amendment, not for the president to decree new laws unilaterally. And, in fact, the drug laws have been changed: Crack is still treated more harshly, but the crack floor for the 10-year minimum was raised (by a factor of more than 5) from 50 to 280 grams. Similarly, for the 5-year mandatory minimum, the ratio is no longer 100:1 — while it is still triggered by 500 grams of powder cocaine, it now takes 28 grams of crack, not 5 grams…

President Obama is using the pardon power to rewrite the statute unilaterally. The time drug offenders spend in jail will be based on his subjective notion of fairness, not the policy embodied in our drug statutes. This is not faithful execution of the law, which is the president’s core constitutional duty. It is the execution of Obama’s whims.

Holder’s announced reasons for this policy are bogus. Because the federal and state governments have concurrent jurisdiction over narcotics offenses, the feds focus on drug importation and distribution felonies, while the states cover mere possession and use. So it simply isn’t true that thousands of people are languishing in federal prison simply for drug possession or addiction…

Finally, Attorney General Holder and the Obama administration may be the worst imaginable officials to carry out a commutation program based on the president’s pardon power. When he served as deputy attorney general under Attorney General Janet Reno, Holder was infamously at the center of the Clinton administration’s pardon scandal. He was a key figure in the 1999 pardons of FALN terrorists; and the pardon process he engineered for Clinton resulted in the release not only of Marc Rich but of two convicted Weather Underground terrorists. So obviously, his idea of “nonviolent” probably does not conform to what most Americans think of when they hear that term.

***

Anthony Papa, a spokesman for the Drug Policy Alliance, called the administration’s reforms a step in the right direction. “I hope governors with the same power at the state level follow his lead and reunite more families,” Papa said. “With half a million people still behind bars on non-violent drug charges, clearly thousands are deserving of a second chance. Congress should act immediately to reduce the draconian federal mandatory minimum sentences that condemn thousands to decades behind bars for non-violent drug offenses.”

***

***

***