The clemency train is ready to pull out from the station again

It was almost exactly one month ago when John Sexton covered the December episode of Barack Obama’s pardon and commutation binge, where 231 convicts had their sentences ended or reduced. But you didn’t really think it was going to stop there, did you? Presidents generally wait until the last possible moment to really open the floodgates and handle some of the really controversial ones. (Think Marc Rich for starters.) That makes sense because the media is less likely to pursue the story as much, what with a new person coming into office and the outgoing leader jetting off to parts unknown for a while.

That pattern looks to repeat itself this week. The Washington Post is reporting that there’s a final list ready to be unleashed and the numbers could be staggering.

Justice Department officials have completed their review of more than 16,000 clemency petitions filed by federal prisoners over the past two years and sent their last recommendations to President Obama, who is set to grant hundreds more commutations to nonviolent drug offenders during his final days in office.

“Everyone has killed themselves here to get the final recommendations to the president,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates said in an interview. “We were in overdrive. We were determined to live up to our commitment. It was 24-7 over the Christmas break.”

U.S. Pardon Attorney Robert A. Zauzmer has not taken a day off since Yates brought him on in February 2016 to sift through the backlog of thousands of petitions. From her home in Atlanta, Yates said she reviewed hundreds of petitions during the holidays.

The Post’s editorial board was quick to jump on board, citing the importance of this work and how vital it could be to both the nation and Obama’s legacy. That “legacy” is described as being rather stingy during his first term.

When properly carried out, the process of pardons and commutations can often be mundane. But Mr. Obama devoted far too little attention to it in his first term and granted mercy to only a handful of people. Then in 2014, halfway through his second term, the administration announced a clemency initiative to prioritize applications from inmates serving federal sentences who would have likely received a substantially lower sentence today and who were nonviolent, low-level offenders who had served at least 10 years, among other criteria.

That all sounds lovely, doesn’t it? The Post stresses in both articles that “many” of these offenders are low level drug users, locked up for inordinate amounts of time for marijuana charges or those who got a stiffer sentence for crack cocaine than the powdered version. And if that’s all we were talking about here, I’d tend to agree. Our prisons are massively overcrowded and when you’re actually talking about low level drug offenses, I say put those who have done a decade or more behind bars out on the streets. With the skyrocketing murder rates in several major cities we’re probably going to need the bunk space anyway.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case in all instances. In fact, there have been hundreds of these so called “drug offenders” who had rap sheets which included a lot more than smoking a joint. In far too many cases they were convicted of gun crimes as well… a fact rarely pointed out in the media. Heather Mac Donald at National Review covered this problem last year.

The vast majority of prisoners exemplify the so-called nonviolent-drug-offender category, a primary focus of “criminal-justice reform” advocates. But a search of the commutation database comes up with 156 hits for “firearms” (some of those hits are multiple counts for the same offender). Wilson Henderson, of Hollywood, Fla., for example, was convicted of “use of a firearm during a drug trafficking crime,” according to the Justice Department press release. Kenneth Evans, of Fort Worth, Texas, was convicted of “use and carry firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime and aiding and abetting.” Mark Anthony Clark, of Rockford, Ill., was convicted of “possession of a firearm by a felon/fugitive from justice and aiding and abetting,” as well as of conspiracy to distribute 100 grams of meth.

Even some of the non-gun charges on that list are serious. Conspiracy to distribute hundreds of grams of meth is not the same as some kid who got an excessively long sentence for dealing a few dime bags of pot. But the truly alarming incidents are the ones who were caught with illegal firearms, whether they actually discharged the weapons during the offense or not. The Democrats keep asking us to approve new restrictions on the sale of legal firearms to lawful owners, but why should anyone pay any attention to those requests when they refuse to enforce the laws we already have on the books? Yes, we have a “gun problem” in this country, but it’s caused by those who illegally traffic in and use firearms to commit crimes. When we do manage to actually catch some of them and put them away, getting their guns off the streets in the process, that’s actual gun control.

By turning around and commuting their sentences the government sends precisely the wrong message to criminals. Hey, don’t worry. You’ll be out sooner than you think. We’re really just going after the NRA members so you don’t have much to worry about.

Keep an eye on this next list of commuted sentences. Dollars to donuts you’ll be finding more cases like the ones Heather describes above.