President Barack Obama, in the 11th hour of his presidency, has commuted the sentences of 1,176 federal prisoners, more than George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan combined. Most of the prisoners granted relief were victims of the notoriously racially biased “war on drugs.”
Many of the men and women released were serving unfair, exorbitantly long and harsh sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug related charges, when what they really needed was drug treatment.
This bold move from President Obama was necessary and long awaited.
However, the executive clemency process, has historically shown patterns of racial bias.
A 2011 ProPublica investigation found that even when applicants had committed similar crimes, “White criminals seeking presidential pardons over the past decade have been nearly four times as likely to succeed” and “Blacks have had the poorest chance of receiving the president’s ultimate act of mercy…”
In executive commutations, another form of clemency, race matters too. The Office of the Pardon Attorney, which reviews pardon and commutation requests, has been found to be biased regarding how and who it recommends for relief.
One sharp example was the handling of two federal commutation petitions. At the age of 24, Clarence Aaron was sentenced to triple life terms for his role in a cocaine deal. This was Aaron’s first criminal offense, and he was neither the buyer, seller, or supplier of the drugs.
Aaron’s application for executive commutation was not only supported by the judge who sentenced him, but also by the prosecuting attorney.
The pardon attorney’s office removed this information about the judge and various prosecutors’ support for Aaron from its summary and recommendation, and Aaron’s application was denied twice. On the same day in 2008 that
Aaron’s petition was denied for the second time, another man serving life on drug charges, Reed Prior, was granted executive commutation. Unlike Aaron, Prior had many prior offenses, was a major drug dealer, and was serving life due to his fourth drug offense: possession with the intent to distribute. Prior is white. Aaron is Black.
Aaron was eventually granted relief by President Obama in 2014,13 years after his first application. Both Aaron and Prior’s convictions grow out of the “war on drugs.”
That “war” known for it’s racial bias and injustice has been indisputably linked to the acceleration of mass incarceration and the destruction of lives and entire communities throughout the 80s and 90s. This is part of why President Obama’s 1,176 commutations are just and appropriate. It would be equally appropriate for President Obama to look back to the 60s and 70s where there was another racially motivated and unjust war in America that also destroyed lives, devastated communities, and pushed people into prison.
The mid-twentieth century struggle for justice and equality brought about great social transformation in this country. Thousands of men and women of all ages, races, religions, genders, and social strata dedicated themselves to the simple proposition that all of us, Americans, are equal in the eyes of the law. A generation challenged our nation to recognize the humanity of those it marginalized and oppressed. Their methods of challenging systemic and rampant police brutality, racial violence, and economic oppression took many forms. One thing was consistent: this committed generation of activists changed the course of this nation for the better.
However, in exchange for their service to their communities, their own government through a joint effort by the federal, state and local effort called the Counter Intelligence Program or COINTELPRO covertly attacked them.
COINTELPRO sought to “neutralize or otherwise eliminate” civil rights activists whether they were ministers like Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or activists like Fred Hamptonof the Black Panther Party. Some of the leaders targeted lost their freedom and some of them lost their lives.
For both King and Hampton, the U.S. government was found to have played a role in their assassinations.
Under the past presidencies, some political activists, whose incarcerations stem from their activism, have been granted executive clemency. Yet when it comes to relief granted to the prisoners whose convictions grow out of social justice movements during a time of relentless government-led targeting, attacks, and violence, race also matters.
Former prisoners and activists of the civil rights movement like Susan Rosenberg, and Linda Evans have been rightfully granted clemency throughout the past few decades and are free. In fact, this month, New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo commuted the sentence of Judy Clark, saying that he “got a sense of her soul” during a meeting where they discussed her case and potential release. Rosenberg, Evans, Boudin, and Clark are white.
Meanwhile, another prisoner whose case connects to theirs, Mutulu Shakur, a documented target of COINTELPRO, awaits a response to his application for executive clemency to President Barack Obama.
Outgoing President Barack Obama is not legally obligated to issue any form of relief to federal prisoners seeking justice. This moment in history where arguably, one of the most unqualified candidates for president will be taking that seat requires another examination of the kind of legacy President Obama seeks to leave.
The president has a unique and valuable opportunity to set a tone of political reconciliation, justice and healing. Mutulu Shakur, along with COINTELPRO victims like Leonard Peltier, Oscar Lopez, and Veronza Bowers have been incarcerated in federal prison for over 30 years and are currently seeking clemency.
Granting commutations to these four men would log into history the Obama administration’s commitment to healing the political wounds of the past and begin a process that will result in a society committed to rehabilitation, forgiveness, and reconciliation, rather than racial disparate treatment, retribution, and punishment.
Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele is the senior community organizer with the *NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Monifa Akinwole-Bandele is the senior campaign director for the Food Justice and Children’s Nutrition campaign at MomsRising, which supports and promotes policies aimed at improving family economic security. She was previously the director of organizing for the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, and a national field director for the Brennan Center for Justice.
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