Over his eight years in office, President Obama has commuted the sentences of 944 federal prisoners through his clemency program — an initiative of unprecedented scale that has reduced more sentences than the efforts of the last 11 presidents combined.
Most prisoners and criminal justice reform advocates had already assumed Obama’s clemency push would be a unique legacy, unlikely to be maintained as robustly regardless of who his successor was. But after Republican Donald Trump’s stunning election upset last Tuesday, a new sense of urgency and fear took hold of many of the 14,340 prisoners whose clemency petitions remain pending.
A coalition of prisoners, family members, and advocates have issued a renewed call to Obama to quicken the pace of the clemency application process, out of fear that Trump, who campaigned as a self-described “law and order” candidate, will refuse to pick up where his predecessor left off.
On Monday, Cut50, a group dedicated to reducing the US prison population by half, brought more than 70 clemency recipients and prisoners’ family members to the White House for a two-day advocacy effort.
One of those family members is Ebony Underwood, whose father William has been waiting nearly 18 months for the White House to rule on his clemency petition. For the Underwoods, the 65 days remaining in Obama’s term are critical, and the wait has been excruciating.
“This is literally our only hope. We’ve always felt like that,” Ebony told Business Insider. “I don’t believe that President-elect Trump will move forward with clemency in the way that President Obama has done.”
Underwood, a former music promoter and father of four, was convicted of drug conspiracy and given a mandatory life sentence with no possibility of parole in 1990. It was his first and only felony.
Over the nearly three decades since his conviction, his family watched federal sentencing laws change and criminal justice reform efforts gradually take shape. But they always bypassed Underwood, who was left in a “legal limbo.”
“We always saw glimpses of laws that were changing, but because of the lack of retroactivity in the law, there was just never any hope,” Ebony said.
“To stay convicted all this time even after the laws have changed, when does punishment become abuse?”
Trump has offered criminal justice experts little to interpret in terms of sentencing reform policy, but he has previously disparaged the president’s signature commutation efforts, once remarking that the nonviolent drug offenders released under Obama’s initiative were “bad dudes.”
It’s the type of remark that worries Brittany Byrd, a attorney and campaign manager with Cut50, who represents inmates who have petitioned for clemency. Byrd said she has been fielding emails all week from frightened clients expressing fear for their futures.
“They’re scared — they’re hoping to beat the clock. One client told me that with each passing day he feels his heart getting tighter and tighter, because he just doesn’t know what’s going to happen,” Byrd told Business Insider. “There’s just nothing more urgent than freedom.”
There is one potential solution Obama could make use of before he leaves office — and it has a precedent, according to Ames Grawert, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program.
The Obama administration could identify all federal prisoners whose sentences would be lessened if the Fair Sentencing Act were applied retroactively, and expedite their clemency petitions.
Barring exceptional circumstances, Obama’s Department of Justice could then recommend reduced sentences for every single prisoner who qualifies — an estimated 4,000 inmates.
A similar effort was undertaken in 1974, when President Ford established a “clemency board” to review conditional amnesty applications for prisoners who were convicted of draft evasion during the Vietnam War.
“Commuting these outdated, unfairly harsh federal drug sentences isn’t something that President Obama should leave to the next administration,” Grawert told Business Insider in an email Monday.
“It’s one of the few significant and irreversible acts he can still take to help end mass incarceration.”