Editorial: Clemency the beginning stages towards reform


President Obama is expected to make a large step toward prison reform through use of his power of presidential pardon to grant clemency to a number of federal prisoners charged with nonviolent drug crimes. Obama has granted 43 commutations in his second term, and coupled with those expected in the future, his total number of commutations will be substantial for a modern president.

The use of the presidential pardon is particularly suited for addressing the problems of over-sentencing and the generally overpopulated prison system even though it may not make the desired, tangible dent the public craves.

Although he more than likely will not come close to the records set by former presidents, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson, Obama’s use of clemency will accomplish a great deal in terms of changing the conversation centered on the prison population. According to statistics from the Bureau of Prisons, 95,265 of inmates were sentenced for drug offenses, making up 48.7 percent of inmates. This number far trumps all other offenses by at least 30 percentage points, thus clearing up any confusion surrounding the existence of a disparity in sentencing.

The danger presented by the prevalence of over-sentencing in nonviolent drug crimes is that it creates a population in society that first exceeds the capacity of the prison infrastructures, and upon release after substantial prison terms, that population is unable to fully reintegrate into society. There is a combination of over-population and a system that is not truly designed to rehabilitate criminals for their eventual return to society.

Furthermore, there is the issue of stigma that comes with the conviction of a crime that would essentially mark an individual unfit for society, leaving no incentive for earnest rehabilitation. For too long the solution has been to toss people in prison for as long as possible and throw away the key. However, this has merely created a system that is now bursting at the seams and in desperate need of reform.  

The problem of over-sentencing and overpopulation did not spring up overnight, and it will not be resolved in such a narrow time window, either. The president’s extensive use of clemency, though, will set the tone for future reform and create the momentum necessary to continue this process after his term has finished.

While the War on Drugs can be blamed for the implementation of many factors resulting in mass overpopulation of the prison system, it is not enough to simply acknowledge the problem. We cannot simply throw our hands up when it is still possible to rectify the system. Now is the time to move toward some semblance of justice for those punished too harshly because of political agendas, ensuring that those practices become a thing of the past.

When addressing and attempting to dismantle a monolithic obstacle such as prison reform, actual opposition is not necessary to hinder progress. All it takes for the improper status quo to be maintained is stagnant energy and a reluctance to use the methods immediately available to initiate fixing the problem — at even the smallest scale. Obama has succeeded by both acknowledging the issue with his actions and taking the steps within his means to help address it.

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