In April 2014 President Obama announced an initiative to expedite the clemency application process for federal inmates, many of whom would have already finished serving their time if sentenced under today’s less draconian guidelines. One of these is Norman Brown, who in 1993 was given a sentence of life without parole—a punishment the sentencing judge said was too harsh—for distributing crack cocaine, the minimum mandated because of his two previous minor drug offenses. For 24 years Mr. Brown kept his head down and his hope alive. Today he is one of the 248 prisoners who have had their sentences commuted by President Obama, who has extended more pardons than his six predecessors combined.
But with less than a year left in Mr. Obama’s term (the clemency initiative expires with his presidency), thousands of men and women are still waiting to have their cases reviewed by the Department of Justice. An estimated 1,500 of the 9,000 pending applications meet the administration’s strict criteria for commutation: nonviolent, low-level offenders who have served at least 10 years with a demonstrated good record in prison. But what Mark Osler, a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas, calls a “sluggish and often intransigent review process” may prevent most of these cases from even being considered.
That would be a shame. President Obama by himself cannot fix this country’s deeply flawed system of mass incarceration. But in this Year of Mercy, it would be most fitting for him to use his unique power of pardon to give prisoners a second chance to rebuild their lives, reunite with loved ones and contribute to society.