[4/17/17] The Department of Justice should keep the public informed about the results of former President Barack Obama’s decision to grant early releases to 1,715 convicts, says a former federal prosecutor.
“What [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions Justice Department needs to do now is track the hundreds of fellows who got these pardons and commutations,” said former federal prosecutor Bill Otis. “With overall recidivism rates for drug offenses already being 77 percent, I think we have a pretty good idea, but [the public] should get specifics: How many of these guys re-offend; what’s the nature of the new crime; were there related violent crimes in the mix as well; and how many victims (including but not limited to addicts and overdose victims) were there?”
But only the Department of Justice has the manpower and access to raw data needed to detail and analyze Obama’s last-minute, closed-door process which released a record 1,715 convicts back into Americans’ neighborhoods. At least one other group has tried to gauge the impact of President George W. Bush’s pardons—but that group had to hire three researchers to assemble only some of the data that the federal government has at its fingertips but does not share.
Since January, President Donald Trump has already taken some steps to increase federal transparency by forcing agencies to release data about crime by illegal aliens. For Otis, this change is a good example of what officials should do with information about Obama’s commutations.
“It may be helpful to have some kind of interagency standard or oversight body to ensure the public has reasonable access to the data it paid for,” consistent with privacy rules, said Jason Richwine, a public policy expert who studies government data to gauge the impact of policy alternatives. “When the government publishes [only] selected statistics from the restricted data, we get answers only to the questions that the government thinks are important—not necessarily the same questions that the public wants (or needs) to be answered,” he said.
“It’s almost always a good idea for the feds to be more transparent,” said Otis. “The sheer size of the federal government makes it hard for citizens to know what’s going on,” Otis wrote, adding:
The feds should also be, not just more transparent, but quicker to release crime data. Because the present release procedures are so slow, liberals were able to deny for many months—if not close to a year—the crime spike that began at the end of 2014, and to dismiss it as just ‘scattered reports’ or ‘a bunch of scaremonger anecdotes.
In January, as he was preparing to leave the White House, Obama claimed “there is no growing crime wave,” despite the crime wave that has killed an extra 1,500 Americans in 2015 and 2016.
Sheltered by the embargo on government data that could have debunked his denial, Obama used his pardon power to shorten sentences for 1,715 criminals, including traffickers of deadly drugs.
Many of those who received clemency are also violent felons. For example, Obama commuted the sentence of a previously-convicted drug trafficker sentenced for involvement in his mother-in-law’s shooting death—and Sherman Ray Meirovitz will be back on the streets in June instead of serving out a life sentence. Obama freed a former armed cocaine dealer onto Virginia’s streets in March, along with a former armed Philadelphia crack cocaine dealer, plus a former armed California meth trafficker.
Obama also justified his large-scale release by claiming racial disparities in the criminal justice system. “About one in every 35 African American men, one in every 88 Latino men is serving time right now. Among white men, that number is one in 214,” Obama said in a 2015 NAACP speech. He continued:
For nonviolent drug crimes, we need to lower long mandatory minimum sentences—or get rid of them entirely. Give judges some discretion around nonviolent crimes so that, potentially, we can steer a young person who has made a mistake in a better direction. We should pass a sentencing reform bill through Congress this year. We need to ask prosecutors to use their discretion to seek the best punishment, the one that’s going to be most effective, instead of just the longest punishment. We should invest in alternatives to prison, like drug courts and treatment and probation programs.
Obama’s White House stated that 60 percent of those incarcerated in federal prison were black or Latino but declined to reveal critical details.
The race-based claim deeply shaped Congress’s debate over crime in 2015 and 2016, when Obama and his deputies tried to pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (SCRA), which would have slashed mandatory minimums for drug traffickers.
The bill’s language, however, reached far beyond the small number of people convicted solely on drug offenses. Sessions, who is now the U.S. Attorney General, noted in May 2016 that there are “virtually no cases of simple possession” in the federal courts. Nearly all, or 99.5 percent, of those incarcerated in federal prison for so-called “nonviolent drug crimes” are convicted on trafficking charges. The bill stalled in the Senate as a handful of Republican senators, including Arkansas’ Tom Cotton and Florida’s Marco Rubio, publicly opposed the legislation, and GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump campaigned on a platform promising “law and order.”
Defeated by data, Obama sought another path to reducing the federal prison population.