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US: Obama Should Flex Clemency Muscle

Commute Unfair Drug Offenses, Protect Immigrants Through Pardons


President Barack Obama should use his clemency power before he leaves office to address injustices in the United States criminal justice and immigration systems, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to President Obama. The president should address disproportionately long federal sentences for drug offenders.

"People are serving prison sentences today that both Congress and the President have called unfair," said Antonio Ginatta, US advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "President Obama has little time left in office, yet he still has an opportunity to take a giant leap toward remedying that injustice through commutations."

In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which addressed sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine offenses. Previously, a person convicted of an offense involving possession of crack cocaine would get the same mandatory prison term as someone with 100 times that amount of powder cocaine. Due to existing patterns of drug law enforcement, Black people in the United States disproportionately bore the brunt of the harsher sentences for crack offenses. But Congress failed to make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, meaning that people sentenced before its passage still have to serve under the outdated and unfair crack penalties.

President Obama should end this injustice by using his clemency power to commute all pre-FSA sentences to limits set under current law, Human Rights Watch said. President Obama should also use his clemency power to address disproportionately long drug offenses due to sentencing enhancements, and to consider commutations for elderly drug offenders in federal prison.

Obama should also use his clemency power to protect immigrants with deep ties to the United States, Human Rights Watch said. Pardoning certain minor crimes, such as simple possession of drugs, could help protect lawful permanent residents with these ties from deportation. For unauthorized immigrants who were granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Obama could pardon any past immigration offenses, which could remove grounds of deportability and help some gain legal status through existing family relationships.

Members of Congress have called on Obama to protect DACA recipients by pardoning prospective immigration offenses as well. President-elect Trump has stated that he would end that program, placing recipients of the deferred action program at risk of deportation once their deferred action status expires.

"Obama asked for young, unauthorized immigrants to present themselves to the government," Ginatta said. "He has an immense obligation to do what he can to protect them in the face of an incoming administration so hostile to their presence."

Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.