President Obama continues his streak of pardons and commutations with a pardon for Chelsea Manning, freeing her in five months rather than 2045. Manning is the army intelligence analyst who made Wikileaks popular. Pres. Obama could have also just saved her life given she had twice attempted suicide and faced what the Times calls “an uncertain future as a transgender woman incarcerated at a male military prison.”
The President and his DOJ staff have been on a roll. On Dec 19, he pardoned 78 people and granted another 153 commutations — the most acts of clemency granted by a US president in a single day. SO far, the President has pardoned and lessened the sentences of more people than the previous 12 presidents prior to him combined.
This fast and furious wave of pardons is warranted given fears that President-elect Donald Trump and his administration will dismantle Obama’s clemency initiative, which has resulted in the early release of 1,176 drug offenders. In addition to his ban on solitary confinement for juveniles, his directive to not renew contracts for private prisons, and his recently published Harvard Law Review 56-page article on criminal justice reform, it seems as if the President’s post-presidential professional life may be revealing its focus: our broken criminal justice system.
Given that the US has the largest number of prisoners in the world despite holding just 5% of the world’s population, Pres Obama would be a welcome and powerful ally in the fight for criminal justice reform. Nearly 1 in 4 adults in this country are imprisoned. The mass incarceration system is driven by racism, favors the wealthy, and is nothing but a swinging door that fosters a life behind bars. The criminal justice system is steeped in history of racism, is driven by profit, and criminalizes poverty and drug addiction continuing such inhumane treatment as solitary confinement. The time for reform has long past and legislators may finally pay attention if a political force like President Obama champions the cause.
Meanwhile, California continues its quest to reduce prison populations. California’s prisoner reductions came from a court order to cut prison populations after a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling found that conditions inside the state’s prisons — which were 200 percent over capacity — violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The state has passed some initiatives, such as Prop 47 in 2014, which released about 4,500 in its aftermath by reducing some felonies, like drug crimes and nonviolent property theft, to misdemeanors.
But that did nothing except shift the problem from state to local jails. The underlying roots of this issue (and see “13” by Ava DuVernay on Netflix for an in-depth look) such as racism, LGBT bias (like how transgenders such as Manning are viewed, convicted and treated), drug rehabilitation programs, mental health facilities, and focusing on reform over retribution for nonviolent crimes and youth have not been seriously addressed by legislation. With civilian Obama and the tide shifting to a greater focus on mass incarceration, the tides may be shifting. If not, we must make them shift.