While the country watched in horror as elector after elector cast their votes for Donald Trump, something amazing happened behind the scenes today: President Obama granted 78 pardons and commuted 153 prisoners’ sentences. Today’s push marks a historic record for the most acts of clemency granted in a single day by any US president, ever. Today’s push has, in one day, doubled the number of pardons he’s granted in the past seven years.
To date, President Obama has commuted the sentences of a staggering 1,324 people he believes deserve a second chance at life. What makes this so significant isn’t simply the number of sentences he’s reduced: it’s the type of crimes these people have been convicted of. For the most part, they’re victims of America’s failed war on drugs, people who committed nonviolent crimes but were sentenced to unreasonably long prison terms under mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
A blog post on the White House website by White House Counsel Neil Eggleston explains the selection process behind Obama’s decisions:
While each clemency recipient’s story is unique, the common thread of rehabilitation underlies all of them. For the pardon recipient, it is the story of an individual who has led a productive and law-abiding post-conviction life, including by contributing to the community in a meaningful way. For the commutation recipient, it is the story of an individual who has made the most of his or her time in prison, by participating in educational courses, vocational training, and drug treatment. These are the stories that demonstrate the successes that can be achieved — by both individuals and society — in a nation of second chances.
With just 32 days left in office, Obama seems to be attempting to work his way through a backlog of federal clemency appeals. Though he’s granted more acts of clemency total than any president since Harry Truman, there is still a massive list of 1,937 pardon petitions and 13,042 applications for commutation of sentence pending with the government.
It’s unlikely he’ll be able to work through them all in the next month, and chances aren’t looking good for the unlucky petitioners who find their way to President-elect Trump’s desk. Trump’s Attorney General nominee, Jeff Sessions, bristled at Obama’s clemency initiative back in August, calling the President’s efforts to fight back against an unjust system of mass incarceration “a dangerous game to advance his political ideology.” For now, it seems, the Obama administration is in a race to run out the clock.
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