Congressional lawmakers are pushing President Joe Biden to grant clemency to nearly 20,000 people in the federal prison system—including those with drug convictions.
The Biden administration is already asking a fraction of people with drug convictions who were placed on home confinement amid the coronavirus pandemic to apply for the relief. But nearly 30 members of Congress signed a letter to the president on Friday urging him to take additional steps for a broader pool of people.
“As our country continues to work to address racial and systemic injustices in our prison system, we must make a reality of our nation’s founding principles of liberty and justice for all,” they wrote. “This moment in history can be a defining one for criminal-legal reform, and following actions by Congress last year, granting clemency for thousands of people will move us closer to our ideals of liberty and justice.”
The lawmakers are imploring Biden to commute the sentences of more than 4,000 people who were put on home confinement as part of the CARES Act. Additionally, they’re advocating for the processing of 15,000 other clemency applications that have been submitted.
This also comes days after a group of more than 150 celebrities, athletes, politicians, law enforcement professionals and academics signed a letter that was delivered to Biden, asking him to issue a “full, complete and unconditional pardon” to all people with non-violent federal marijuana convictions.
The new letter from the lawmakers—which was led by Reps. Cori Bush (D-MO), Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and David Trone (D-MD)—states that “we implore your administration to extend compassion to each person currently on home confinement under the CARES Act and to refrain from placing arbitrary categorical restrictions on who deserves to remain home.”
These men and women have been serving their time at home, contributing to society and in many cases working and caring for family members. pic.twitter.com/wIQ4I8y1gb
— Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (@RepBonnie) September 17, 2021
It goes on to encourage the establishment of an independent advisory board “to streamline and modernize the decades-old clemency process, and provide expeditious review of the thousands of cases awaiting answers to their clemency petitions.”
“This advisory board must address the racially disproportionate impacts of our criminal-legal system,” the lawmakers wrote. “There is no reason to wait.”
“By granting commutation to the 4,000 on home confinement and committing to restructuring the clemency process at-large, your administration has an opportunity to fulfill a campaign promise to reduce our nation’s prison and jail population and improve the lives of the people and communities across the country who have been most harmed by a punitive and racially biased criminal-legal system,” the letter says.
The letter doesn’t specifically talk about relief for people with federal drug convictions—despite the fact that Bush and Watson Coleman introduced a historic bill to federally decriminalize all drugs earlier this year—but it does cite the case of Gwen Levi, a grandmother who was placed on home confinement under the CARES Act after serving 16 years in prison over a drug conviction.
“Clemency is a constitutional imperative,” the letter, which was first reported by The Hill, says. “Granting commutations to those on home confinement and restructuring the clemency process demonstrates genuine compassion, while ensuring that our country continues to mitigate the risks of COVID-19, particularly in the populations that are most vulnerable to its spread.”
“As Members of Congress who care deeply about ending systemic and racial injustice in our criminal legal system, and who are willing to do everything possible to ensure every community is safe from the deadly consequences of this pandemic, we stand ready to work with you,” it concludes.
Other notable signatories include Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Karen Bass (D-CA), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA).
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during a press briefing last month that Biden is “exploring multiple avenues to provide relief to certain nonviolent drug offenders, including through the use of his clemency power.”
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,” she said. “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.”
Psaki added at the time that there was nothing actionable to preview at that point, but said 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 during the exchange.
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 proposed on the campaign trail, 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.
Read the new letter to Biden on clemency below:
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Marc Nozell.