Obama’s “Legacy-Defining” Clemency Program Struggles

Black Agenda Report’s Glen Ford discusses the Obama administration’s struggling program aimed at releasing prisoners who have served their time

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Story Transcript

JARED BALL, TRNN: Welcome, everyone, back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.

According to Reuters, in April 2014, the administration of President Barack Obama announced the most ambitious clemency program in 40 years, inviting thousands of jailed drug offenders and other convicts to seek early release and urging lawyers across the country to take on their cases. Nearly two years later, the program is struggling under a deluge of unprocessed cases, sparking concern within the administration and among justice reform advocates over the fate of what was meant to be legacy-defining achievement for Obama.

To discuss this a bit, and joining us once again for his Ford Report, is executive editor and founder of BlackAgendaReport.com, Glen Ford. Glen, welcome back to the Real News.

GLEN FORD, EXEC. EDITOR, BLACK AGENDA REPORT: Thanks for having me.

BALL: So what do you make of this report from Reuters that Obama’s clemency program is struggling?

FORD: Well, to say it’s struggling is really an understatement. 44,000 prison inmates applied for this clemency program. But so far, two years later, only 187 inmates have actually been given clemency. 8,000 cases are still bottled up in program reviews that have been farmed out to private lawyers working for no pay. And there are another 9,000 cases that are still bottled up in the U.S. Justice Department. And the reason they haven’t emerged from that review is because the Obama team never got enough lawyers, assigned enough staff lawyers to the case, to process all of these requests for clemency. About 1,500 people were estimated by the administration to ultimately be eligible. As I said, only 187 of them have been processed.

So by any measure, the Obama prison clemency program has mostly been smoke and mirrors, and most of all a whole lot of heartbreak for thousands of federal prisoners. That program will go out of business automatically, because it’s an Obama executive order. It goes out of business automatically when he leaves office, and that’s whether they have processed, or properly processed, all the people, the prison inmates who have applied for the program, or not.

But despite all of these problems, there’s no doubt that the Obama team that’s in charge of putting together, crafting his official historical legacy, they’re still going to say that he has been a champion of criminal justice reform. Obama also got great publicity last year for supposedly advocating the early release of thousands of inmates who’d been convicted under the old crack cocaine laws.

But even after Congress passed new laws to replace the 100:1 crack cocaine penalty, it was the Obama Justice Department that went into federal court to prevent the retroactive application of those laws. And that resulted in 6,000 prison inmates spending an additional two years in prison as the Justice Department put them through this long review process.

And finally, last year, to great fanfare, President Obama announced a new executive order that speeded up that process and finally released most of those 6,000. And he got praise again, even though he had not quickened the release of these inmates, who Congress had made possible getting out of prison. He had, in fact, delayed the release of 6,000 men and women from federal prison.

The reason that Obama gets away with these criminal justice tricks and this media hype is because most of the black Democratic political establishment is also guilty, just like he is, of buttressing the mass incarceration system. Half of the Congressional Black Caucus voted for the crack cocaine bill back in 1986, and many of them also voted for President Bill Clinton’s monstrous anti-crime bill in the 1990s. And 80 percent of the Congressional Black Caucus, back in 2014, the same year that President Obama was proposing this clemency program, 80 percent of the caucus that year voted to continue the Pentagon’s transfers of weapons and gear and training to local police departments. In other words, they voted in support of ongoing, continued militarization of the police.

So the real story is that Obama’s criminal justice policies are no better and no worse than that of most of the black folks in Congress. And–.

BALL: But Glen, we’ve seen this–just very quickly, I wanted to ask–because we’ve seen this Reuters report that there’s some dispute over who’s to blame for this, where the Department of Justice was putting at least some of the blame on the clemency project 2014, you know, a large, I believe, volunteer-based group or community-based group, who’s there to assist them, for them being too slow in this process of aiding this program moving along.

FORD: Isn’t that amazing, isn’t that amazing.

BALL: I’m wondering, though, won’t this–given the presidential elections later this year, won’t we hear from defenders of Obama, and certainly defenders of the Democratic party, that there was at least an attempt made that was only resisted or slowed or disturbed by the reactionary forces in this country or the right wing, and therefore continue to get credit? And given–and even your examples previously stated notwithstanding, isn’t there some justification for that claim?

FORD: No, certainly there’s no justification in terms of blaming a part of this slowness, half of the delay, on these volunteer lawyers. These are folks who volunteered to work without pay. They include not just private lawyers but students and law departments in various colleges and such, many of whom said that, look, you know, we’re really not geared up to do this. You need to be handling this in-house. This is a Justice Department program to deal with a U.S. Justice Department property, that is, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and you guys are best equipped, if you want to deal with it, to do so.

And so it’s almost as if you cut back on food stamps and they get mad at the, the food kitchens at churches for not distributing enough free food quick enough to make up for your own, for your own cutbacks in federal programs. It’s amazing.

BALL: Well, Glen, thanks again for joining us for this edition of the Ford Report here at the Real News Network.

FORD: Thank you.

BALL: And thank you all for joining us. For all involved, again, I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore, saying, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace, everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.

End

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