Obama Hints at “Thousands” of Potential Drug Case Clemencies

Obama has the worst record on presidential clemencies of any modern Head of State. So when he recently announced he would be accepting and potentially approving stacks of clemency petitions, it came as a surprise.

Last week, a senior administration official with the Obama Administration told Yahoo News that the president was gearing up to grant clemency to “hundreds, perhaps thousands” before he leaves office. But considering he made similar strong statements against the criminal justice system while on the campaign trail and early in his career, some aren’t holding their breath.

Under Obama, offenders submitting applications for pardon or clemency stood about a 1 in 5,000 chance of having it approved. Under Reagan and Clinton, it was a 1 in 100 chance. Obama has granted 52 pardons and 10 commutations, paltry figures considering the U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country.

Part of the problem throughout Obama’s time in office was the pardon attorney, tasked with forwarding information to the president on each petition, suggesting which applications should be rejected and which should be approved.

Ronald Rogers, that pardon attorney, was recently fired after ongoing allegations that he was mismanaging the office. In one case, for instance, Rogers left out the recommendations of a trial judge and prosecutor that said defendant Clarence Aaron should be pardoned. Aaron was serving three life sentences for drug distribution despite having no prior criminal record. One senior official reports that Rogers was suggesting Obama deny nearly every single petition.

But Rogers isn’t the only problem. Some say the pardon system is so broken, it needs to be entirely rethought and restructured. To that end, a staffer in the pardon attorney’s office wrote a letter in 2009 alleging that black petitioners were at a serious disadvantage as the office historically and presently gave more weight to white petitions for clemency. Obama’s top lawyer Gregory Craig has suggested the office needs to move out of the Department of Justice entirely, because putting such an office so close to the system that incarcerates the prisoners was surely a conflict.

For now, Obama is setting his sights on nonviolent drug offenders, but a very narrow section of them. It’s this narrow definition of who may qualify that many believe could prevent the “sweeping” generosity of the President to reach many people at all.


Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole has laid out the new criteria for non-violent clemency applicants, and the affected population is pretty limited.

“Offenders seeking clemency will have to have served at least 10 years of their sentence, have no significant criminal history, and no connection to gangs, cartels or organized crime. Applicants also must be inmates who probably would have received a “substantially lower sentence” if convicted of the same offense today. And to be eligible, they must have demonstrated good conduct in prison.”

The most telling aspect of these criteria is that the applicant would “probably” faced a shorter sentence if sentenced today. It seems the only pool this would affect is those sentenced under the disparate crack cocaine laws moderately undone by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. In other words, if you were sentenced for a crack cocaine crime before that time and that sentence would have been shorter if it fell under the new law, you could be eligible for clemency.

There is no doubt that the president needs to do better in regards to his clemency and pardons record. But it remains to be seen if this latest push will be followed with action and if that action will be significant enough.

Will the President get serious about pardoning the countless non-violent drug offenders behind bars, or his this just a PR move?

After all, when there are likely hundreds of thousands of men and women serving sentences for drug crimes, a few hundred or even a few thousand pardons are merely drops in a massive bucket.

About David Matson