As President Obama’s final days in office are coming to an end, he has used this opportunity to take a strong stance on criminal justice reform by granting clemency to thousands of incarcerated Americans. Unfortunately, his efforts, while well-intentioned, represent too little too late when it comes to substantial criminal justice reform.
In the last several months, Obama has commuted a record number of prisoners, incarcerated for a variety of crimes including both violent and nonviolent offenses. Given the current state of our broken justice system-where offenders receive sentences which far exceed the extent of their crimes and many probably never belonged behind bars in the first place- President Obama’s commutations are surely admirable. However, the President’s actions do nothing to address the real problems facing our country’s incarcerated population.
Rather than tackle the issues which created our current predicament, such as mandatory minimum sentencing policies, the war on drugs, or the epidemic of overcriminalization plaguing the nation, the President has waited until his last term in office to grant clemency to prisoners, instead of preventing similar situations from occurring time and time again.
Additionally, many Americans do not understand that commutations are not the same as pardons. Those who are commuted are still considered “former felons,” which means they will face the same harsh realities typical formerly incarcerated individuals encounter. While there can be no doubt that this newfound freedom is still life-altering for those who were included in Obama’s clemency campaign, it does not help these individuals secure housing, find employment, or prepare them for a the world that awaits them outside the prison walls.
Furthermore, these mass commutations do nothing to curb our skyrocketing prison population or help those who are currently serving out sentences which far exceed their offenses.
Ferrell Scott, for example, was sentenced to spend his life in prison for possession and conspiracy to distribute marijuana. Like many victims of the drug war, Scott is a nonviolent offender who is serving time behind bars for an offense that is now considered legal in many states. However, though Scott has been recognized for his model behavior behind bars, he was denied clemency by President Obama, highlighting a major problem with the entire commutations process.
Due to the way the commutation system works, President Obama is not able to review individual cases when making his decisions. Instead, he relies on the opinions of Justice Department representatives as well as White House counsel. However, these representatives usually have little to no contact with these prisoners and cannot accurately depict their unique circumstances. Without this complete picture of each candidate on the potential commutations list, many deserving prisoners, like Scott, remain incarcerated while others are granted clemency.
To make matters even more heartbreaking, no one from the Justice Department bothered to inform Scott that he had been denied clemency. Instead, he was told over the phone by his daughter, who could barely manage to get the words out without breaking into tears.
“She cried like a baby and she was telling me that she didn’t know what she was supposed to do now. Couldn’t understand it,” Scott tells The Watch in a phone interview.
To be sure, Obama’s clemency campaign has most certainly benefited the lives of those who were included, and also their families, but it does nothing to address the countless individuals who were left behind in the process, like Farrell Scott.
Without addressing the roots of the many problems facing our criminal justice system, there can be no substantial remedies or reform. While President Obama’s willingness to even acknowledge the nation’s criminal justice issues is worth applauding, at the end of the day these commutations appear to be more of a PR move, than a substantial transition towards real reform.