WASHINGTON -- President Obama announced Monday that he had pardoned five Americans for past crimes, bringing his pardon total to just 22, a small number by historical standards. But the president also commuted a prison sentence stemming from a relatively recent crack cocaine conviction.
"That commutation of a sentence was Obama's first bold act of executive clemency," said P.S. Ruckman, a pardon expert at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill.
Obama has maintained the stingy clemency tradition of recent administrations. Last December his pardons included a man who'd mutilated coins in the 1960s and a man who'd stolen plywood and nails from a construction site. In May, Obama pardoned eight people whose offenses ranged from running drugs to descrambling satellite TV signals. The mostly minor offenses happened long ago and the offenders had already served their time. A pardon restores a convict's civil rights but doesn't clear his or her record.
Which is why commuting a 22-year sentence -- for possession with intent to distribute 13.9 grams of crack -- is "a big-time decision," Ruckman said. He noted that half of Obama's pardons have involved drug offenses and that the latest round involved relatively recent cases.
Eugenia Marie Jennings of Alton, Ill., was convicted in 2001. With a stroke of Obama's pen, she'll be out in December, before her prison term is halfway finished.
In an unsucessful 2008 court petition for a reduced sentence, Jennings wrote that she had "made incredible efforts toward change to rehabilitate herself and become a productive citizen amongst others." She quit smoking, underwent drug treatment, earned a diploma in a professional electrician program, held down a job in a prison call center, and kept close ties with her children.
At the invitation of Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Jennings' brother, Cedric Parker, testified against mandatory minimum drug sentences before Congress in 2009.
"Eugenia was charged in federal court with two counts of distributing crack cocaine. She accepted responsibility and pleaded guilty. The federal prosecutor decided to charge her as a so-called 'career offender,'" Parker said. "Her two Illinois state prior convictions for small amounts of drugs were enough to treat her as a major drug kingpin, driving her sentence from the mandatory minimum of five years to a sentence of almost 22 years. My sister was barely 23 years old and the mother of three young children when she was sentenced in January 2001 to over two decades behind bars."
Parker read a statement from the judge, who lamented he had no choice but to impose a long sentence on Jennings. "Your whole life has been a life of deprivation, misery, whippings, and there is no way to unwind that," G. Patrick Murphy said. "But the truth of the matter is, it's not in my hands. As I told you, Congress has determined that the best way to handle people who are troublesome is we just lock them up."
In August of last year Obama signed a bill reducing the disparity between federal sentences for people caught with crack cocaine and those caught with powder cocaine. Under the new bill, the disparity was reduced from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1, but the law is not retroactive.
Margaret Love, a Washington lawyer who handles clemency cases and has criticized the administration for its stingy use of its clemency powers, applauded the president for using his first commutation.
"If this signals the president's willingness to take a look at the many cases that will not benefit from the change in the law, then it is indeed good news," Love said. "I would like to see the Justice Department's clemency process be the source of recommendations for the president. Ms. Jennings' case appears to have been brought to the president's attention by Sen. Durbin and Families Against Mandatory Minimums."
FAMM president Julie Stewart wrote Tuesday that Jennings had a beltway-based pro bono legal team that "built a wide network of supporters and advocates, including Senator Richard Durbin."
Three of the six clemency actions this week involved marijuana convictions.
"We've been very concerned with his lack of commutations and pardons thus far," said Jasmine Tyler, deputy director of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. "This is a great mechanism for him to step up on the issue, given that he supported the complete elimination of the crack cocaine disparities."
The issue is a racially charged one, as Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who spent 16 years as a trial lawyer dealing with hundreds of cases involving cocaine arrests, explained at the time of the reform.
"Basically whites use cocaine, blacks use crack," Ellison told HuffPost in an interview, "or are arrested with it. It's not even use, actually. Blacks don't use that much crack, but in terms of who gets caught dealing it ... [blacks are] disproportionately more likely to be arrested with it."
David Borden, executive director of StopTheDrugWar.org, said granting crack sentencing commutations is a good use of the president's executive powers and one that's consistent with the president's views.
"The administration, including the Justice Department, has supported crack sentencing reform, but they've shown only limited support for retroactivity in it," he said. "And so I would say that granting commutations for crack business would be entirely consistent with the president's position on the issue."
It's a rare use of the president's executive power. The administration's approach to drug policy in general has been to support Congress, but otherwise not to initiate drug policy reforms.
"This was the case with crack sentencing," Borden said. "It was the case with needle exchange funding. The exception was medical marijuana, where they issued a policy statement about use of resources and state medical marijuana laws that's been interpreted highly inconsistently by the U.S. attorneys, as we've seen recently."
In October, federal prosecutors announced a crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries in California, threatening to shutter state-licensed businesses.
Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said he was "glad to see that at least every cycle there's a couple out of the estimated 100,000 marijuana-related offenders in American jails" who are pardoned. Still, he notes, the vast majority of marijuana arrests happen at the state and local level. "The universe of people who even qualify to get a pardon from the president is pretty small compared to the tens of thousands of people who are sitting at the state, local and county level that are not touched by any of these."
Asked about Obama's one commutation, he added, "That person probably feels as lucky as today's lottery winner."