What was supposed to be an unprecedented move to reduce mass incarceration isn’t going as well as originally planned. President Obama announced a clemency bid for thousands of non-violent offenders, but less than 200 prisoners have had their sentences commuted thus far.
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.
More than 8,000 cases out of more than 44,000 federal inmates who applied have yet to make it to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for review, lawyers involved in the program told Reuters. That is in addition to about 9,000 cases that are still pending at the DOJ, according to the department’s own figures.
Only 187 inmates have had their sentences commuted, far below the thousands expected by justice reform advocates and a tiny fraction of the 2.2 million people behind bars in the United States, which has the world’s highest incarceration rate.
The administration said it wanted to decide on all the applications before Obama’s term ends next January, when the program will automatically expire.
The blame game can go both ways, but the Obama Administration is likely to bare much of the responsibility. Lawyers taking on the massive number of cases are working for free. “It’s unfair to criticize the volunteer group that you asked to help,” noted NYU criminal law professor, Rachel Barkow.
A 69-year-old cancer stricken inmate, noted in the Reuters story, has spent 20 years behind bars for distributing marijuana. With two years left on her sentence, Linda Byrnes has yet to have her case picked up for early release. “I thought clemency was for people like me,” she said.
While the inmates remain in limbo amid the traffic jam, thousands of submitted cases were rejected for not meeting the proper guidelines.
Of the 2.2 million people incarcerated in the U.S., more than half are non-violence drug offenders.