President Joe Biden is looking into using his executive authority to grant clemency to people with certain non-violent drug convictions, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Wednesday.
Asked about plans for federal inmates who were released to home confinement during the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic but who will have to return behind bars, Psaki said the administration is “working hard every day to reform our justice system in order to strengthen families, boost our economy, give people a chance at a better future.”
“As part of this, the president is deeply committed to reducing incarceration, helping people successfully reenter society. And he has said too many people are incarcerated—too many are black and brown,” she said. “And he is therefore exploring multiple avenues to provide relief to certain nonviolent drug offenders, including through the use of his clemency power.”
Psaki added that there’s nothing actionable to preview at this point, but the president is “looking at a range of avenues” for relief. The fact that, as a senator, Biden played a key role in enacting punitive drug laws that contributed to the mass incarceration he’s now considering steps to resolve did not come up at Wednesday’s briefing.
Clemency actions that the president could take include commuting the sentences of those who are currently incarcerated or pardoning people whose records impede their abilities to get jobs, vote or otherwise participate in society.
Biden has faced criticism from drug policy reform advocates who’ve grown frustrated that he’s yet to make good on campaign promises such as decriminalizing marijuana. While his opposition to adult-use legalization remains a challenge on its own, they feel he should at least take steps to enact modest reform.
The president also campaigned on expunging prior cannabis records and respecting the rights of states to set their own laws.
Since taking office, however, his administration has not made progress on any of those pledges and has instead fired its own White House staffers over marijuana and sought to extend a budget provision that has blocked Washington, D.C. from legalizing cannabis sales.
In April, Psaki was pressed on Biden’s clemency promise for people with federal marijuana and said that process will start with modestly rescheduling cannabis—a proposal that advocates say wouldn’t actually accomplish what she’s suggesting.
Moving cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule II under the Controlled Substances Act, as Biden is proposing, wouldn’t facilitate mass clemency given that being convicted for crimes related to drugs in that slightly lower category—which currently includes cocaine—also carries significant penalties.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said during a recent interview that Biden could and should use executive authority to end federal marijuana prohibition on his own—but the two of them have “differences” when it comes to drug policy. There are, however, legal questions about whether a president could actually legalize cannabis unilaterally given existing statutes.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Marc Nozell.