President Barack Obama can’t say he didn’t leave his mark on the United States. In at least one area, he shattered a record that his successors will probably find difficult to top: According to a new report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, Obama granted more commutations than any other president in history. The only one who came close was LBJ, and that’s using a pretty loose definition of the word “close.” While President Johnson commuted the sentences of 226 federal prisoners, Obama did so for a whopping 1,716. Way to knock it out of the ballpark, Barry.
Obama didn’t come by the record by chance, of course; pursuing full clemency and commutations for nonviolent federal offenders was part of his platform in the second term of his presidency. Eager to cut prison time for offenders caught in jail for longterm drug sentences, the president handed red meat to his left flank by tasking a group to go looking for cases he could meddle in.
While liberals and even many libertarian conservatives have concerns about drug sentences that tend to have a disparate impact on minority communities, there is a right way and a wrong way to go about reforming the system. And the truth is that, even after a thorough analysis by the 2014 Clemency Initiative, it’s not clear if President Obama exercised enough caution in determining which individuals got an early trip home. As in everything else the former president put his hands on, his primary objective was to earn a place in the history books. Obama’s “legacy” was always his chief concern, no matter how his actions affected the nation he was sworn to protect and defend.
Last year, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch spoke eloquently about the need for President Obama to slow down. While acknowledging that certain sentencing reforms make sense – such as the push to eliminate mandatory minimums – Hatch said that releasing offenders early was not always a great idea.
“It’s important to keep in mind, for instance, that many incarcerees plead down from more serious crimes,” Hatch wrote. “That is, the offense for which they’re serving time was not the offense initially charged, or the most serious offense for which the government could have won a conviction. In the plea-bargaining process, both sides make concessions in order to avoid the uncertainty of trial. The defendant agrees to plead guilty, while the government agrees to forego more serious charges. Thus an individual caught dealing drugs may agree to plead guilty to simple possession, or a person arrested with ten kilos of cocaine may plead guilty to possessing a much smaller amount.”
The time is over, of course, for debate when it comes to Obama’s decisions. They’re done, and this is one area where Trump cannot undo the damage. Still, there’s an opportunity to make sure that Obama’s template does not become the norm, and if we’re serious about preserving law and order in this country, that would be a good opportunity to take advantage of.