Against Selective Leniency

On July 13, President Obama announced that he will commute the sentences of 46 imprisoned individuals. Among them are several dozen drug offenders and a score of other nonviolent lawbreakers. Thirteen of them were serving life in prison. This is undeniably good news. Any victory, no matter how small, in the fight against the racist prison-industrial complex is worth celebrating. Obama’s commutations are a laudable first-step toward prison reform, but they are only that — a first step.

The progressive establishment’s ensuing glowing endorsement of Obama’s actions — a man who presides over the world’s largest incarcerated population — speaks volumes about the disingenuous nature of liberal respectability politics. “Their punishments didn’t fit the crime,” says Obama, while nearly one million other men and women — many of whom are marginalized racial and ethnic minorities — continue to languish in cages on drug-related charges. Now is not the time for Obama and his supporters in Congress to pat themselves on the back. America is in need of the kind of root-and-branch reform that will make sure these unfortunate souls don’t find themselves in trouble with the law to begin with.

Even more disingenuous is the mainstream American left’s refusal to acknowledge Obama’s exceedingly stingy number of presidential pardons. By commuting the sentences of nonviolent offenders while refraining from pardoning their crimes, Obama sends mixed messages. The commutations do demonstrate some level of compassion, mercy, and commitment to criminal justice reform on Obama’s part, but his lack of full pardons allows him to maintain the presidential status quo in the War on Drugs. By being issued commutations only, the freed prisoners must still live with the stigma of their criminal convictions, making adapting to life on the outside all the more difficult.

A commutation is simply an early release from prison. The slate is wiped clean for whatever time is left on the commuted person’s prison term. They re-enter the outside world still a convicted felon. A pardon, on the other hand, is complete forgiveness of the crime — it encompasses not only a commutation of the remaining prison sentence, but also an expungement of the person’s criminal record. While Obama has released these 46 prisoners from captivity, they will not receive freedom in the true sense of the word. Getting jobs, finding homes, and many of the other basic aspects of life which most people take for granted are all the more difficult for those with criminal records. Commutations are halfway measures, and they allow Obama to play both sides of this issue. For drug offenses especially, it’s shameful to acknowledge a person’s lack of criminality, and yet still force them to carry the heavy burden of a criminal record.  

Let us reiterate. We are excited that these 46 prisoners will be set free. Upon deeper analysis, however, not enough has been done for them. A few dozen commuted sentences every eight years will not and cannot change the evil system under which Americans live. Instead of hoping for reform and relying on selective leniency, let’s work toward abolishing prisons.

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