Obama's Stingy Clemency

How many on the inside deserve clemency?

Photographer: David Greedy/Getty Images

President Barack Obama has said that far too many federal prisoners are serving longer drug sentences than they deserve. He just can’t seem to find them.

A year ago, to much fanfare, the Department of Justice announced that it would expand its clemency criteria and devote dozens of lawyers to reviewing the resulting flood of applications. There is certainly no shortage of possible applicants: Nearly half the 209,000 inmates in the federal prison system are serving time for drug offenses -- and nearly half the total population is serving sentences of 10 or more years. Sure enough, some 6,500 clemency applications were received in the last fiscal year, nearly triple the previous record.

On Tuesday, the president revealed the results (so far) of this yearlong effort: As part of his commitment to "bring greater fairness and equity to our justice system," the White House announced in a blog post that the president was commuting the sentences of a grand total of … 22 prisoners. To explain why Obama issued the commutations, the White House released a statement criticizing mandatory minimum sentences, saying that they can produce overly long prison terms. That’s true. Were there only 22 prisoners for whom that was the case?

More commutations may be forthcoming, of course. Still, this week's meager number suggests one of two possibilities: The current drug-sentencing laws are actually working quite well, or the president doesn’t have the political courage to release people from prison who have been there too long.

Surely it is the latter. Drugs laws in the U.S. are Draconian compared to most other nations, forcing people into prison for far longer than necessary, useful or just -- at great expense to taxpayers. Last week, Obama said that incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders is “breaking the bank.” He’s right. But he hasn’t been willing to do much about it. No politician, even one who will never again run for office, wants to be responsible for a crime that a freed prisoner commits.

The Obama administration understandably prefers to push for new laws that would reduce sentences, and there is increasing bipartisan support for such legislation in Congress. Legislation is the best way to address the problem. But until it passes -- and there is still plenty of congressional opposition to lighter sentences -- Obama ought to have the courage of his convictions.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.