A long and in some ways disheartening article, but it appears that change is finally on the way.
This mainly involves non-violent offenders who were sentenced under the insanely draconian mandatory sentencing laws passed by grandstanding politicians during the initial phase of the war on drugs in the 80s and 90s. These guidelines have now mostly been repealed or otherwise changed, but the original sentences still stand.
The administration has been slow to act. Obama is ultimately responsible, of course, but much of the blame can be placed on the DOJ’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, an obscure bureaucratic hole that processes clemency applications before they are forwarded to the White House, and whose director was recently censured for reflexively rejecting almost every application that did not come from the wealthy or well-connected.
DUBLIN, Calif—Scrawled on the inside of Barbara Scrivner’s left arm is a primitive prison tattoo that says “Time Flies.”
If only that were the case.
For Scrivner, time has crawled, it’s dawdled, and on bad days, it’s felt like it’s stood completely still. She was 27 years old when she started serving a 30-year sentence in federal prison for selling a few ounces of methamphetamine. Now, 20 years later, she feels like she’s still living in the early ’90s—she’s never seen or touched a cellphone, she still listens to her favorite band, the Scorpions, and she carefully coats her eyelids in electric blue eye shadow in the morning.
The judge who sentenced her to 30 years said his hands were tied. He was forced to lock her up for that long because of a now-defunct mandatory minimum-sentencing regime. If he heard her case today, he’d give her 10 or 15 years, he’s said. The prosecutors in the Portland, Ore., office that charged her agreed that if she were prosecuted today, she’d almost certainly get a sentence shorter than the 20 years she’s already served.
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.
When it came to using his only unfettered presidential power — to pardon felons and to reduce the sentences of prisoners — Obama was incredibly stingy in his first term. Vanita Gupta, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, calls his record on mercy “abysmal.” He pardoned just 22 people — fewer than any modern president — and commuted the sentence of just one. An applicant for commutation like Scrivner had just a 1-in-5,000 chance of getting a reduced sentence with Obama in his first term — compared with a 1-in-100 chance under Presidents Reagan and Clinton, according to an analysis by ProPublica.
According to former and current administration officials, the fault for this lay mostly at the feet of the Office of the Pardon Attorney, a small corner of the Justice Department that sifts through thousands of pardon and commutation petitions each year. The pardon attorney, former military judge Ronald Rodgers, sends his recommendations of whether or not to grant the petitions to the Deputy Attorney General’s office, which then sends them on to the White House. The pardon attorney was recommending that the president deny nearly every single petition for a pardon or a reduced sentence, according to one senior official in the Obama administration.
The president complained that the pardon attorney’s office favored petitions from wealthy and connected people, who had good lawyers and knew how to game the system. The typical felon recommended for clemency by the pardon attorney was a hunter who wanted a pardon so that he could apply for a hunting license.
Meanwhile, the pardon attorney became the target of a scathing Justice Department Inspector General report in December 2012, furthering the suspicion in the White House that the culture of the office was to reflexively deny petitions. Rodgers fell “substantially short of the high standards to be expected of Department of Justice employees and of the duty he owed to the President of the United States,” the Inspector General said.