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President Obama's Commutations: The View From Inside

This article was published on Forbes

president Obama's commutations: The view from inside

President Obama just commuted the sentences of 111 federal prisoners, setting the record for the most commutations granted in a single month and taking the total of those he has freed during his time in office to a record 673. My cell block just erupted in celebration through bar-banging, hoots and applause.

According to the White House, Obama has commuted more sentences than the last ten presidents combined, and on average, six times more than any single president in the last ten administrations. Ironically, the next president down the list of these ten is President Clinton, the same president who put in motion the tough-on-crime legislation that incarcerated many of my neighbors, which is now making these Obama commutations necessary.

Every one of us in the federal prison system knows of many just like those the president has commuted — men we live with who were convicted of what would have been relatively minor drug possession offenses but who are now serving time that is equivalent to that received by murderers. To look at the list of those whose sentences are being commuted is like reading a roster of about half of the convictions my neighbors possess. In fact, the latest Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that drug offenses account for 50.1% of all federal prisoner convictions.

“Possession with intent to distribute” small amounts of drugs is a common conviction in these parts. In real terms, these are essentially small time wannabe drug dealers who had enough illegal substance to maybe sell to a few people. Typically, these are the sorts of “dealers” who were trying to support their own habit by selling a little on the side. If you were unlucky enough to get arrested at the height of the crackdown on such offenses, you are now serving a 20-plus year sentence. To put this in perspective, if you were found guilty of this in any place but the federal system, in any county in the U.S., you would likely only serve a handful of months in county jail, which is why this is a focus area for presidential commutations.

If that sentencing is not absurd enough, most of the commutations granted by the president this week were “conspiracy to distribute” offenses. Put more plainly, the convicted criminal didn’t actually have drugs on him when arrested. He was instead convicted of trying to arrange the sale of drugs, or in more common reality, several drug users pointed at him as being the one who sold them their fix in the past. Three such pointers will net you a ‘conspiracy to distribute’ charge by the feds. This can earn you a life sentence, and the very real possibility that you’ll never see the free side of the wall again — the same amount of time as you would be serving if you had killed those three users and a dozen more. This is no exaggeration. A third of those who received relief from Obama are people serving life sentences for just such an offense.

A simple comparison of these harsh federal sentences to those meted out for the same offenses by state courts shows that even with the mandatory minimum sentencing, which has come under recent scrutiny, these offenders would typically have been released from state confines long ago. But that doesn’t matter to the hoards that have amassed on social media in disgust and panic, bashing the gall of President Obama’s “abuse of power” in releasing these dangerous criminals back into society prematurely.

It likewise probably wouldn’t matter to these ones that many who fell under these extreme sentences are actually very productive members of our society, and not in the way that many naysayers might suspect. To do a where-are-they-now sort of look inside, you would find that several of those former wannabe drug dealers were able to exercise their business acumen on upstanding pursuits, such as operating fundraising efforts for community charities or becoming heads of their departments in prison industries. You’ll find more than a few who were sentenced to what amounts to life sentences for “conspiracy” offenses are now involved with organizations that help young people to find better paths than the ones they took. Street lessons have been traded in for schoolbooks, resulting in humbled college graduates out of what many might have assumed were hardened criminals.

Every single one of those who received the gift of commutation by President Obama is a model citizen in the prison community. It was an eligibility prerequisite to be one of those considered for relief. To even scratch the surface of those 673 who made the cut from 11,477 eligible would be to uncover several who have accomplished more positive from behind bars than many of those who are currently tweeting their hatred.

If that’s still inadequate, and there is still an ingrained fear that these released ex-offenders will run amok the moment they are freed consider a recent comprehensive case study:

Due to severe overcrowding in the California prison system, a drastic reduction in the amount of prisoners housed there was recently required. The year 2011 saw the implementation of the California Public Safety Realignment Act, which resulted in the release of thousands of nonviolent offenders, the majority of whom were sentenced for drug crimes.

Within 15 months, California reduced the size of its total prison population by 27,527 inmates. Many feared an instant spike of crime in the state. But those fears turned out to be for naught. According to the comprehensive study, ‘Is Downsizing Prisons Dangerous?,’ published earlier this year by the journal of the American Society of Criminology, there wasn’t a noticeable impact at all.

“An astounding 17% reduction in the size of the California prison population,” the study concluded, “had no effect on aggregate rates of violent of property crime. Moreover, three years after the passage of Realignment, California crime rates remain at levels comparable to what we would predict if the prison population had remained at 2010 levels.” An entire town’s worth of prisoners unleashed on one state, with no ill effect.

While the steep opposition and endless streams of fear mongering currently taking place over President Obama’s historic commutations are likely more politically based than the concerns among California’s residents were, the result of the early release of these nonviolent offenders will likely be the same — a non-event. In fact, experiencing firsthand through life beside the sort that will be released this year, I would go so far as to say that the world will be a better place for it.

As the end of the California study realized, “imprisonment may affect crime, but it does so at a high social, human, and economic cost and is far less cost-effective than alternatives.” Perhaps it’s time to stop having a knee-jerk reaction to the idea of prison depopulation in America, and certainly to the release of a relative handful of prisoners who should have been released long ago. Maybe it’s time to start noticing when positive change is ripe and in small ways occurring right before our eyes, ready to be embraced and expounded on.

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