President Obama is expected soon to free dozens of federal prisoners locked up on nonviolent drug offenses, says the New York Times. He will probably commute more sentences at one time than any president has in nearly half a century. The expansive use of clemency power is part of an effort by Obama to correct what he sees as past excesses when politicians eager to be tough on crime threw away the key even for minor criminals. With many in both major parties agreeing that the nation went too far, Obama can unlock the prison door, especially for African-American and Hispanic men disproportionately affected. Obama has only begun to tackle the problem he has identified. In the next weeks, his commutation total may surpass 80, but more than 30,000 federal inmates have come forward in response to his administration's call for clemency applications.
A cumbersome review process has advanced only a small fraction of them. Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums says, “I'm not sure they envisioned that it would be as complicated as it is, but it has become more complicated, whether it needs to be or not, and that's what has bogged down the process.” One challenge has been finding a way to use Obama's clemency power without making a mistake that would be devastating to the effort's political viability. The White House has not forgotten the legacy of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who raped a woman while furloughed from prison and became a powerful political symbol that helped doom the presidential candidacy of Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts in 1988.