Obama plans to grant commutations throughout the rest of his presidency, White House counsel Neil Eggleston on a call with reporters, and administration officials are moving swiftly to go through the thousands of remaining petitions.
The total commutations are now more than the previous 11 presidencies combined, according to the White House. Of those total commutations, 342 were serving life sentences and 839 have been granted this year.
Obama has previously said he hopes to bring the existing sentences of inmates more in line with current laws, which have been relaxed after an era of strict mandatory minimums mostly related to non-violent drug crimes.
Sentence reform advocates feel a sense of urgency because they doubt the Trump administration will continue Obama’s initiative to provide relief to nonviolent drug offenders, some of whom are serving four or more times the sentence they would receive today, according to administration officials.
“(Trump) is a law and order president and many of the people seeking clemency were incarcerated under law and order presidents,” said Cynthia Roseberry with the Clemency Project. “I’d hope he would be able to continue (the initiative) but based on statements he has made I’m not positive that he will.”
Donald Trump’s attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions has criticized Obama’s clemency initiative in the past, saying “The President is playing a dangerous game to advance his political ideology,” adding, “Unfortunately, history and common sense tell us that rushing to release federal prisoners will have long-lasting, harmful consequences, particularly for our nation’s most vulnerable communities.”
Obama administration officials insist they are not doing anything differently, such as speeding up the petition review process, out of concern for the next administration.
“The urgency doesn’t come as a result of the election, the urgency comes as part of the initiative being a priority under President Obama,” one administration official said, adding, “this isn’t a short process.”
As of early November, there were 12,405 petitions for the Department of Justice and the White House to review. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said Tuesday the department is on pace to review all 6,300 petitions from drug offenders submitted by August 31 — a deadline announced before the election.
Following criticism earlier this year by sentence reform advocates the process was too slow, new procedures were put in place several months ago to speed up the review of the thousands of petitions submitted to the Justice Department.
“We are processing more petitions than ever before — without compromising our duty to carefully consider each petition and keep the public’s safety foremost in our recommendation,” acting pardon attorney Robert A. Zauzmer said in a blog post.
This year alone, Obama has granted 839 petitions. Administration officials point out that’s more than most presidents have done during an entire presidency.
Eggleston told reporters it is ultimately up to the President to decide how many sentences he wants to commute.
“The President looks at each one on an individual basis and then decides. I think we will keep going until the end and we’ll continue to review,” he said.
Until then, Roseberry says there’s a sense of anxiousness among those who still have unanswered petitions.
“People are anxious every time there’s a round of grants and they don’t see their names. These are people for the first time in years that have some hope of liberty. This was the first glimmer of hope for them in a decade,” she said.