Undaring Nonviolent Commutations

President Barack Obama has issued pardons and commutations on 9 occasions during his presidency. His first motions of forgiveness came in December 3, 2010. Between that date and the end of 2015, the president issued 70 pardons and commutations. In 2016, he issued 78 further actions. This number multiplied Wednesday, with the announcement that prior to leaving office, Obama would issue an additional commutations to 209 individuals and pardon 64 others. While these actions should be applauded, a review of all 351 acts of forgiveness reveals that the departing president and his administration have systematically ignored requests from individuals convicted of violent crimes.

It is true that a select number of individuals from Obama’s previous and recent pardons and commutations had been found guilty of unlawful possession of a firearm. Under (state and) national legal codes, possession of a weapon when arrested for a drug offense results in the crime being considered “violent”. Regardless of if an individual brandishes the weapon or makes threats regarding its use, in such circumstances gun charges are filed as a matter of course. On March 31, 2016, Republican Alabama Senator Richard Shelby exploited this procedure in a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, later publicized by the National Rifle Association, in order to note that 12 of the 61 individuals granted commutations the previous day by Obama had been convicted of a firearm-related offense. Neither Shelby’s letter nor the NRA’s follow-up make mention of the distinction between an individual arrested for using a gun and an individual detained for an unrelated act and then discovered to have a firearm on their person.

Such criticisms, realized or intimated, seem to have indeed cornered the Obama administration into failing to make bolder statements through their pardon and commutation policy about the second chances also deserved by those whose past actions have included violence. Indeed, none of the 351 individuals granted relief have been convicted of violent acts. The closest charge to such actions is Puerto Rican independence leader Oscar López Rivera, accused of being a member of a Puerto Rican separatist group that carried out over 100 bombings in major US cities in the 1970s and 80s. But López Rivera never admitted to these charges, and there are serious reasons to doubt his direct involvement with the group.

Regardless, what remains clear is that Obama failed to make a statement about the redeemability of all. By not incorporating any individuals with violent criminal convictions into his hundreds of pardons and commutations over 8 years, the outgoing president missed his mark. Rather, the administration reaffirmed the false paradigm between deserving and dangerous incarcerated individuals. Until we reexamine our treatment of violent crimes within the criminal justice system, there exists little hope of reducing mass incarceration’s staggering scale.

Obama touring the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma.