A “Nation of Second Chances”: Obama Cuts Prison Sentences

President Obama has made history again! On August 3, he reduced the sentences of 214 federal inmates, including 67 life sentences. This marked the largest single-day grant of commutations since at least 1900. It also raised Obama’s total commutations to 562 – more than the past 9 presidents combined.

The commuted inmates included Ronald Evans, who was sentenced to life in prison as a teen for his role in a small drug distribution ring. They included Ramona Brant, who was given a life sentence for failing to report her drug dealing boyfriend. And they included Norman Brown, who was sentenced to life in prison at 22 for conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

Identifying candidates for clemency was a “laborious process”. In 2014, the Obama administration developed expanded eligibility criteria, prioritizing non-violent offenders who: served over 10 years, behaved well in prison, lack close ties to gangs or drug cartels, and “would have received shorter sentences if…convicted a few years later”. At least three levels of lawyers at the Justice Department and White House then reviewed each applicant against these criteria. Successful applicants were sent to the President for approval, while unsuccessful applicants were often given additional drug treatment, educational programming, or counseling.

So what is the motivation behind Obama’s mercy? It is partly philosophical. The president believes that inmates’ sentences should accurately reflect their crimes. Additionally, he feels that inmates who have “demonstrated the potential to turn [their] lives around” and the “capacity to make good choices” deserve a second chance.

But there are also practical considerations. Overly onerous sentencing requirements “have put tens of thousands behind bars for far too long”, resulting in “incarceration rates unseen in other developed countries”.  The cost to the justice and penal systems is immense. Hence, commutations can reduce prison overcrowding and “save taxpayers like you money”. They also reunite families, helping to break the cycle of incarceration.

Still, criticism abounds. Some have accused Obama of being “soft on crime”. They fear recidivism (although most commuted inmates will remain supervised following release). Others believe Obama has not gone far enough. The Clemency Resource Center at NYU says that more than 11,000 petitions are pending and 1,500 meet the administration’s criteria. Attorney Deborah Leff maintains that some inmates deserve pardons, allowing them vote and “apply for jobs without criminal records”.

Even Obama acknowledges the weaknesses of his clemency initiative. “Despite these important efforts,” he says, “only legislation can bring about lasting change to the federal system”. For this reason, “it is critical that both the House and the Senate continue to cooperate on a bipartisan basis to get a criminal justice reform bill to the President’s desk”.

Want to help incarcerated individuals get a “second chance” and become “valued and contributing members of society”? Please contact the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, or our partner, Rosebud Advocacy.


Supreme Court says “I Do” to Gay Marriage

In the marble halls of the US Supreme Court, nine justices are deliberating a landmark case, inching closer and closer to the “most anticipated ruling of the year”. The case, known as Obergefell v. Hodges, will determine whether the 14th amendment of the constitution requires states to: 1) license a marriage between two people of the same sex, and 2) recognize such marriages licensed in another state.

The case has the potential to drastically increase gay rights in the United States. Instead of a “patchwork of laws and legal rulings on the issue”, it could legalize same-sex marriages nationwide. Such an outcome would give gay Americans access to the 1,138 federal benefits, rights, and protections provided to married couples. In the words of attorney Dana Nessel, this would “mean equal justice for…millions of families around the country and many millions to come”.

Currently, gay rights activists are largely optimistic about the Supreme Court’s decision (expected in late June). After all, public support for same-sex marriage has jumped incredibly in recent years. A Wall Street Journal-NBC poll last month found that approximately 60% of Americans support same-sex marriage, compared to 30% in 2004. Similarly, the number of states allowing gay marriage has grown steadily from 0 states in 2003 to 37 states (and Washington DC) today.

Recent Supreme Court rulings are also encouraging. In the 2003 case, Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 to strike down bans on same-sex sexual activity. The opinion stated that “Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code” and that no “legitimate state interest …can justify its intrusion into the personal and private life of the individual”. Exactly 10 years later, in United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to invalidate provisions of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that defined marriage as between a man and woman. The opinion explained “DOMA violates basic due process and equal protection principles”.

In both major decisions, Justice Anthony Kennedy authored the opinion. Though appointed by President Reagan, Kennedy has become a sort of gay rights champion on the bench. He is widely expected to cast the pivotal swing vote—in favor of gay marriage—in the Obergefell v. Hodges case.

But even if the Supreme Court backs gay marriage, “it’s becoming increasingly clear that that’s not the end of the marriage fight”. Some leaders predict that the ruling would “mobilize conservative activist” and provoke “civil disobedience in America like…never seen before”. Furthermore, as in Indiana and Arkansas, states may pass laws allowing businesses (like Christian florists and bakers) to refuse service to gay couples on religious grounds.

The LGBT community also continues to face incredible obstacles outside of the marriage realm. Currently, federal civil rights laws “explicitly protect people from being fired, evicted [etc] on the basis of race, religion, and gender but not sexual orientation or gender identity”. Additionally, some recent victories—such as the lifting of the military ban on openly gay service members—did not apply to transgendered people.

 In light of this lingering discrimination, gay rights activists are now “shifting their attention to passing anti-discrimination measures at the state and federal levels”. They hope to “harness the power of the marriage win to continue moving hearts and minds and making possible the additional legal and political gains [needed] to gain full inclusion”.

Op4G fully supports these efforts—not just because of our friends and family in the LGBT community but because of our belief in the innate dignity of all peoples. If you would like to extend support, please donate to the Human Rights Campaign, the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, the National Center for Transgender Equality or our partners, the Memphis Gay & Lesbian Community Center and the Attic Youth Center.