While President Barack Obama‘s top foreign-policy initiatives - particularly on Cuba, trade and Iran - have dominated the headlines lately, the White House is gearing up for a domestic policy push that’s largely been under the radar...To the extent that any of these require Congressional action, I doubt the odds of movement from Republicans have improved much. But on criminal justice reform, Peter Baker suggests that we are about to see another round of commutations as a result of the President's clemency initiative.
In coming weeks, the White House is expected to roll out more executive orders, perhaps on gun safety. And top White House officials are hoping to capitalize on their successful collaboration with congressional Republicans on trade to advance a business tax overhaul and transportation initiatives targeted at shoring up the country’s infrastructure.
Changes to the criminal justice system are also at the top of the president’s domestic wish list.
Sometime in the next few weeks, aides expect President Obama to issue orders freeing dozens of federal prisoners locked up on nonviolent drug offenses. With the stroke of his pen, he will probably commute more sentences at one time than any president has in nearly half a century.Baker goes on to suggest that the anticipated announcement might mean that the President's total of 43 commutations to date will double to over 80. But it's important to keep in mind that this is an ongoing process. Due to the administration's work on this initiative, there are now over 7,000 petitions pending. According to Gregory Korte, the office that reviews these petitions in the Department of Justice has set a deadline of January 2016 for petitions to be filed that will be reviewed by this administration.
Based on that information and what we've seen so far from this initiative, we can expect to see that the kind of announcement Baker is forecasting will happen every few months between now and the end of President Obama's second term.
Baker summarizes the record of modern presidential use of commutation:
Modern presidents have been far less likely to commute sentences. Lyndon B. Johnson commuted the sentences of 80 convicted criminals in the 1966 fiscal year, and no president since then has matched that in his entire administration, much less in a single year. Ronald Reagan commuted only 13 sentences in eight years in office, while George W. Bush commuted just 11 in the same amount of time. The elder Mr. Bush commuted three sentences in his four years.There is no doubt that by January 2017, President Obama will have surpassed any modern president on the number of commutations granted. In the scheme of things, it will be his small contribution to reducing the number of people who are currently incarcerated in this country. But it makes a bold statement nonetheless. It also marks a huge change in what the President identified as the problem with this process.
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.That is clearly no longer the case. And so this represents yet another example of how President Obama has used the power of the executive branch to make real change.