During the last 7 years, I have often criticized President Barack Obama for many actions he has taken that were outside the scope of his authority. He has continually ignored the Constitution and grown the power of the Presidency–something he specifically campaigned against. The President has carried out a foreign policy that has left us less safe and has killed thousands of innocent civilians. He has overseen the growth of the regulatory state and continues to promote economic policies that would kill small businesses and leave our nation less prosperous. It is fair to say that President Obama has earned a lot of criticism that he has received from conservatives, but occasionally he does something that should be praised–this past week was one of those occasions.
Last Wednesday, The White House announced that President Obama was commuting the sentences of 214 federal offenders. The vast majority of those receiving commutations were non-violent drug offenders. The announcement marked the 562nd commutation granted by this President, and set a record for the most commutations granted in a single day of our nation’s history. The last president to commute more sentences than President Obama was Calvin Coolidge.
The Constitution gives the President the authority to “grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment”. This presidential power allows the President to shorten prison sentences or even erase convictions for federal offenders. The action President Obama took on Wednesday was to grant a series of commutations, which shorten the sentences of prisoners, but do not overturn the convictions. This means that they will still be classified as felons, will still be under the supervision of the court system, and will still face the harsh realities of being an ex-con.
Since the announcement, President Obama has been the target of rebuke from all corners of the Republican Party. Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions–a Trump ally–stated that President Obama was “playing a dangerous game”. Sessions went on to say that these offenders are not “low-level” and “non-violent” as the President claims, because such offenders “simply do not exist in the federal system”.
Ignoring the blatant absurdity of Session’s claim that low-level non-violent offenders never get charged with federal crimes, the pushback on this by the GOP is irrational and dishonest. Every single one of these offenders would have faced shorter sentences had their crimes been charged today due to less stringent sentencing guidelines. Sixty-seven percent of those who received a commutation on Wednesday were facing life sentences, and almost all of the 214 offenders were serving time on drug related charges. The criteria used to weed through the commutation applications is so strict that 96% of the applications are rejected. Things like serving less than 10 years or having more than a very minimal criminal history are grounds for automatic rejection by the Justice Department. If you listen to the likes of Jeff Sessions, you would think they are releasing the federal system’s most hardened criminals; that is simply not the case.
Sessions and other Obama critics like to point to 56 of these “serious criminals” who were also facing federal firearms convictions in connection to the drug charges. The only problem being that a person can catch a firearm conviction for simply having a firearm on their person while also possessing drugs. The fact that Republicans are choosing to highlight this as their chief criticism seems exceptionally partisan coming from the Party who claims to protect the rights of gun owners.
These 214 individuals appear to be picturesque victims of the federal war on drugs. The war on drugs has broken up families, cost our country billions of dollars, and has forced millions of families to welfare programs. There is nothing conservative about that. Conservatives love to talk about how the breakdown of the black family is ruining minority communities, but they refuse to do anything about policies that disproportionately harm minorities and continues to leave so many families fatherless. Conservatives pay lip service to shrinking government and reducing the deficit, but continue to do nothing about the laws that give the state orwellian powers and cause our country to spend billions locking up non-violent offenders for victimless crimes. We have to do better.
I will continue to criticize President Obama when he inevitably does something else that is beyond the pale, but today he deserves my praise. Conservatives should embrace these commutations and do what it takes to change our sentencing laws and our destructive drug policies.