President Obama is likely to grant commutations to shorten the prison sentences of still more nonviolent drug offenders before he leaves office on Friday, the New York Times reports. He has already issued more than 1,000 commutations — more than the number issued by the prior 11 presidents combined. That legacy is about to come under quick siege with the incoming Trump administration’s “law and order” platform, as Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Al) made clear last week at his confirmation hearing for attorney general. Sessions vowed that cracking down on drugs, violence, gun crimes, and illegal immigrants would be among his top priorities.
Civil liberties advocates see the pendulum swinging away from gains made in the past eight years, with thousands of prisoners in the federal system released early. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) said “law and order” in the Trump administration could mean a return to police practices penalizing minorities more harshly than whites. A tougher approach threatens what the Obama administration regards as a milestone in criminal justice. For the first time in decades, the population of prisoners, which quadrupled from about 500,000 in 1980 to 2.2 million in 2015, is shrinking. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said stiff sentencing policies failed to distinguish adequately between the drug kingpin and “the kid on the corner.” The consequences for both prisoners and their families have been enormous, she said. “I think it was clearly a mistake, in hindsight,” she said. “In trying to get the balance right, we seriously overshot the mark in the ’90s.” Long sentences have , been compounded by a lack of prison programs for job training, education and mental health. Too many freed prisoners, she said, “never learned to read in prison, they never learned a trade in prison, they are unemployable, literally unemployable. When they come out, they have nowhere to live, they may come out still with an addiction.”