Blog of Rights

Obama's Commutation: A Prelude to Systemic Reform?

By Emma Andersson, Criminal Law Reform Project at 3:21pm

There are hundreds of thousands of Americans serving outrageously long prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses as a result of our nation’s widely discredited and inhumane "war on drugs." On Tuesday night, President Obama did something he had not yet done as president — he commuted someone's prison term. While we applaud President Obama’s decision to allow Eugenia Marie Jennings, a mother of three suffering from cancer who has served 10 years of her 22-year sentence for selling 13.9 grams of crack cocaine, to return to her family 12 years earlier than she otherwise would have, we hope this stands not as a mere isolated gesture of generosity but rather marks the beginning of an enduring, fundamental change in the president’s systemic approach to drug policy.

We have commended the president for his role in the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the crack to powder cocaine sentencing disparity from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. But much more reform is still needed. Indeed, many nonviolent drug offenders — including Ms. Jennings — do not benefit from the newly reduced disparity. And even those who do benefit still receive a sentence that is disproportionately harsh and that disproportionately affects African-Americans.

Furthermore, while Ms. Jennings likely caught the president’s attention because of her particularly sympathetic story, strong legal team and a supportive United States senator, there are so many more like Ms. Jennings who don’t have such powerful advocates and yet are no less deserving of the president’s mercy. With hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug offending Americans behind bars, sporadic commutations aren’t nearly enough to solve the nation’s current incarceration crisis or prevent us from perpetuating the unjust “war on drugs” in future generations.

As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, we are heartened to see the president exercising his remarkable pardon power for the benefit of nonviolent people — the casualties of a 40-year “war” during which we’ve torn families apart, and through which we’ve sustained our nation’s shameful tradition of subordinating poor communities of color. But when we gather around the table next year to give thanks, we hope to be commending the president for moving beyond the all-too-rare commutation to having taken a firm stand to end our failed and racist drug war.

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