11/22/2011 11:51 am ET | Updated Jan 22, 2012

Mercy for People, Not Just Turkeys

This week, President Barack Obama won't just be pardoning turkeys. He decided to throw some human beings in the mix, too. He pardoned five people, restoring their civil rights, and even issued his first presidential commutation to Eugenia Jennings, reducing her sentence so that she can return home to Missouri to recover from cancer and watch her daughter graduate high school.

Her commutation is long overdue.

In 2001, Jennings was a survivor of domestic abuse and had a long-standing struggle with drug addiction. She began selling small quantities of crack cocaine to support herself and her three children. When she sold a mere 13.9 grams of crack cocaine to a police informant, Jennings received a 22-year sentence. No guns were involved; no one was hurt.

Jennings spent her decade in federal prison conquering her addiction, educating herself, and speaking publicly to students, warning them of the consequences of drug use. Earlier this year, Jennings was diagnosed with cancer. She has received chemotherapy treatments in prison and shows positive signs of an eventual recovery.

Jennings's commutation is no fluke -- her pro bono legal team from the Washington, D.C. firm of Crowell & Moring built a wide network of supporters and advocates, including Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.). Sen. Durbin first learned about Eugenia's outrageous sentence when her brother, Cedric Parker, testified before Congress. Sen. Durbin and Jennings's lawyers fought tirelessly for her release for three years.

Unfortunately, the use of the pardon power has become seen as such political anathema that this kind of herculean effort -- and lengthy wait -- is what it takes to get justice. It wasn't always this way. President Obama has now been in office as long as President John F. Kennedy, but Kennedy granted over 600 pardons and commutations during that time. President Obama has granted 22 pardons and one single commutation.

This meager use of the pardon power isn't only a shirking of an important presidential duty, as former Maryland governor (and prolific pardoner) Robert Ehrlich argued in a recent Baltimore Sun editorial; it also makes no sense. Half of the inmates in the overcrowded federal prison system are drug offenders; 75,000 are serving mandatory minimum sentences, which were just lambasted in a U.S. Sentencing Commission report as excessive and ineffective. There are thousands of people like Eugenia Jennings in our federal prisons: nonviolent drug offenders who long ago beat their addictions behind bars, pose us no threat, yet still serve decades-long sentences that cost taxpayers over $28,000 a year (per prisoner). Many current and former prisoners alike have earned and deserve a fresh start and a second chance. The pardon power is their only hope.

To be fair, President Obama's less-than-remarkable use of the pardon power is not entirely his fault. A Justice Department study issued this fall shows that the office that reviews pardon and commutation requests is backlogged, inefficient, and offers a resounding "no" to virtually all applicants. The office of the Pardon Attorney is in desperate need of an overhaul. In its current condition it serves the interest of neither the President nor the taxpayers who foot the bill for the lengthy incarceration of prisoners who deserve commutations.

This Thanksgiving, Eugenia Jennings is a prisoner with a lot to be thankful for. But why should she be the only one?