Clemency for Criminals?

prison_visitationWhen elected in 2009, President Obama promised to address federal prison reform.There are many pressing issues surrounding the federal prison system, including prison spending and overcrowding. However Obama has been criticized for making little to no headway in these regards beyond signing the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, which lessened the vast disparity between prison sentences for crack and powder cocaine. There has also been a push to lower the mandatory minimum sentencing laws pertaining to drug charges. Current laws set a minimum required prison sentence for certain offenses that often lead to punishments which do not fit the crime; causing prisons to continually become more overcrowded as criminals serve long, unwarranted sentences. Some civil rights groups have been critical of Obama’s lack of utilization of his clemency powers as president, citing that he only pardoned 22 inmates (significantly less than other presidents) during his first term. However the Obama administration has been pushing toward providing clemency for more inmates who meet a stringent set of criteria, which aims to assure the inmates released would not be a threat to public safety or reoffending. Clemency for the inmates who meet the criteria is a step in the right direction for federal prison reform because it will help alleviate the overcrowded conditions, decrease the amount of taxpayer money spent on incarcerated felons, and provide the pardoned inmates with the opportunity to rehabilitate and become productive members of society.

The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prisons has set forth guidelines that inmates must meet in order to be eligible for clemency. The criteria that must be met are:

“1. Inmates who are currently serving a federal sentence in prison and, by operation of law, likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense today;

2. Are non-violent, low-level offenders without significant ties to large-scale criminal organizations, gangs, or cartels;

3. Have served at least 10 years of their sentence;

4. Do not have a significant criminal history;

5. Have demonstrated good conduct in prison; and

6. Have no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment.”

It is projected that approximately 2,000 of the 200,000 inmates who are currently incarcerated in the federal prison system would be eligible for clemency under these guidelines. Although this number is expected to decrease after applications for clemency are reviewed, this brings hope to many inmates. The Deputy Attorney General, James Cole, endorsed the guidelines by reassuring that the inmates who may be granted clemency will “not present a threat to public safety, and were sentenced under out-of-date laws that have since been changed, and are no longer seen as appropriate.” In addition, Cole also noted that the harsher sentences dictated by stringent drug laws “erode people’s confidence in our criminal justice system,” because the justice system should promote equal justice under law. The President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Jerry Cox, also demonstrated strong support for the possibility of clemency for hundreds, or even thousands, of inmates. Cox views the potential clemencies as a “historic opportunity to start the process of remedying decades of cruel and unnecessary harsh sentencing policies.” Although there are many people in favor of granting clemency to deserving inmates, there are still critics who are skeptical that clemency is not enough to reform the prison system.

Advocates for civil rights who support federal prison reform look favorably upon the new clemency developments that are being discussed, but also think more steps should be taken to reform the system as a whole. Vanita Gupta of the American Civil Liberties Union agrees that clemencies will be a positive step toward adjusting punishments to fit the crimes committed, but also argues that clemency is “not a substitute for systemic reform.” Gupta, along with numerous supporters, agrees that President Obama should work alongside Congress in order to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would eliminate a required minimum sentence for substance abuse charges, for those who do not have an extensive or violent criminal history. This would set up preventative measures for future offenders so that they are not handed unnecessarily lengthy sentences; this would effectively lower the future need for clemencies because the sentences will fit the crime. While critics agree that clemencies alone will not eradicate the issue of federal prison overcrowding, it is the general consensus that it is a good first step in federal prison reform.

The average cost to provide for the essential needs of one inmate in a federal prison is over $25,000 per year. Incarcerated inmates are not providing any beneficial work to society, and are costing taxpayers thousands of dollars. Passing more relaxed sentencing laws and granting clemency to deserving inmates is a good way of reducing federal prison spending. Prison overcrowding, which is also a pressing issue on the forefront of debate for federal prisons, can also be alleviated by the implementation of laws that would require criminals facing minor drug charges to serve shorter sentences. People charged with minor drug offenses should not be contributing to the currently overcrowded conditions of federal prison, they should be given the opportunity to seek alternative rehabilitation. Another alternative for minor offenders is probation; which only costs about $3,500 per offender each year. This possibility allows for the offender to remain integrated in society, hold a job, and get a second chance at leading a normal life after prison. Offenders who are sentenced to unnecessarily long prison terms, or life in prison, do not always have the chance to get parole or probation and set their life straight. Shorter sentences for minor offenders and the option of probation could ultimately save the prison system hundreds of thousands of dollars.

There is a case of a man named Timothy Tyler, which is currently receiving a lot of media attention because of the recent talks of clemency. Tyler was only 23-years old when he was sentenced to 2 life terms in prison without the chance of parole for possession of LSD with the intent to distribute. During the trial Tyler was offered a plea deal with a 10-year sentence in exchange for his testimony against his co-defendants. However, Tyler turned down the offer because one of the co-defendants was his father. After spending over 20 years in prison and watching his father pass away in jail, Tyler is convinced that he is now a changed man, who deserves a chance at clemency to live out the rest of his life outside of prison. Although Tyler had no history of violent crimes, his arrest was his third drug-related charge, which prompted the mandatory sentencing law to go into effect; resulting in the 23-year losing his chances of ever being a free man again. Tyler’s supporters argue that his punishment is grossly unfit for the minimally harmful crime he committed. Having already spent 20 years behind bars, Tyler believes that he has been rehabilitated, and spending the rest of his life incarcerated is extremely excessive punishment. Under the new clemency requirements, Tyler could be eligible for release. Small-scale drug offenders, like Timothy Tyler, who were sentenced to life behind bars under the outdated, stricter drug laws deserve the chance to be exonerated under the new clemency criteria so they can reintegrate into society and become potentially productive members of the community.

There are many benefits to granting clemency to deserving inmates. President Obama should utilize his clemency granting power to improve the prison overcrowding situation, decrease the federal prison spending, and provide better opportunities for inmates to turn their life around. In order to assure massive discrepancies between crime and punishment are avoided in the future, it will also be necessary to pass legislation that addresses these issues directly. The availability of clemency to thousands of inmates will hopefully serve as a catalyst for continued federal prison reform, where many of the other issues facing the prison system can be addressed.

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