The question in the title of this post is prompted by a sentence in this Vox piece by German Lopez (strangely) headlined “Biden’s secret weapon for criminal justice reform.” The article is about the power of the President to grant clemency, and I think it a bit strange to call that power a “secret weapon” given all the attention that clemency has received in recent years and given that there has already been a number of prominent calls for Prez Biden to use this power in prominent ways (examples blogged here and here and here and here). I guess the headline speak to the tendency of some to look past the clemency power as a means to address systemic issues like mass incarceration, and the piece is still a worthwhile read. Here is an excerpt that includes the sentence that prompts the question in the title of this post:
[S]ome advocates have argued for a ground-up rethinking of clemency: The president could reform the whole process to systematically cut sentences for federal inmates caught in the frenzy of America’s drug war and mass incarceration….
[T]he president or his advisory board could set standards, targeting inmates with long sentences (especially for nonviolent crimes), those under mandatory minimums, or people who have been rehabilitated in prison.
Biden, at least, supports using clemency powers for some of these ends — saying in his criminal justice reform plan that he’d use his clemency powers “to secure the release of individuals facing unduly long sentences for certain non-violent and drug crimes.”
But since taking office, Biden hasn’t made any public moves in this area — although his staff is reportedly working on it behind the scenes.
Biden could be waiting for his attorney general nominee to get Senate approval. Or he could be concerned about the political risks: If an inmate he releases goes on to commit a crime, it could fuel a backlash. (The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
Prez Biden should have his Attorney General nominee approved next week, so perhaps reported “behind the scenes” work will become public in short order. I remain hopeful that significant use of the clemency power will be part of a multi-prong criminal justice reform push by the Biden Administration, but I will only believe it when I see it.
A few of many prior related posts:
- How about some clemency grants from Prez Biden while his team works on grander clemency plans?
- ACLU urging Prez Biden to “use his clemency powers to bring home 25,000 people” from federal prisons
- Why not a clemency push focused on the (more lethal) new death penalty that is COVID in federal prisons?
- Reviewing CJUTF Recommendations: when and how might Biden Administration create an independent clemency board?