Is executive clemency an effective way to deal with harsh sentencing in non-violent drug cases?
The Obama administration thinks so.
In 1994, the U.S. Justice Department expanded the criteria for clemency to reflect the Obama administration’s desire allow executive clemency to be a tool in modifying harsh, mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.
At the time Deputy Attorney General James Cole told the media: “We are launching this clemency initiative in order to quickly and effectively identify appropriate candidates who have a clean record, do not present a threat to public safety, and were sentenced under out-of-date laws that have since changed, and are no longer seen as appropriate.”
This clemency initiative presented a new kind of federal sentencing reform. Reform is definitely needed in a sentencing scheme that requires federal inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentences before being released—and they only receive the 15 percent goodtime discount if they maintain an acceptable record of good behavior.
Federal inmates rushed to take advantage of the Obama clemency initiative—except for Arnold Ray Jones that is. He elected to stay in prison.
The Story of Arnold Ray Jones – and Why He Declined
Jones was one of the 29,000 federal inmates who asked Obama to commute their sentence. The President responded by extending clemency to 775 of them, and 774 of them have accepted this act of executive grace. Jones did not.
Clemency was granted to Jones in August. Had he accepted Obama’s offer, he would have been released in two years reducing his term of imprisonment by four years.
Jones is the only person to reject an act of executive clemency extended by President Obama, making him only the 16th person in U.S. history to decline a commutation.
The reason for Jones’s rejection is not clear because he hasn’t released a statement yet. Most news outlets have speculated that the rejection is tied to a condition in the commutation offered to him.
That condition required Jones to complete a residential drug treatment program—a condition that has been added to many of Obama’s commutation orders.
Jones, it seems, has participated in a number of prior treatment programs that proved to be unsuccessful.
Additionally, while Jones technically has six years left on his sentence, it has been said that he believes he will get out in April 2019 for good behavior.
If that is the case, he will only have served eight months more than had he accepted Obama’s commutation and would not have to participate in yet another drug treatment program.
Commutations for Low-Level Offenders
As mentioned earlier, Obama has granted clemency to 775 individuals during his presidency. This year alone, 590 people have received clemency – the highest number of clemencies ever granted by a U.S. president. And it’s likely not over yet, because Obama has said that he plans to continue granting clemency until his administration is over.
Most of these cases of clemency are commutations – a shortened sentence, sometimes with terms like the rehabilitation programs described above. A few cases involved full pardons that forgave the individual of his/her crime.
The vast majority of individuals who have been granted clemency by Obama were put in prison for low-level or nonviolent drug offenses.
While these individuals will benefit in one way or another by the president’s actions, most harsh federal drug crime penalties remain the same for thousands of other inmates.
That’s certainly the case for Jones’ crime of drug trafficking.
Federal Penalties for Drug Trafficking
At the time of his conviction, Jones was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. This is not uncommon. In fact, some federal drug trafficking charges require 20 years in prison. This is due to the mandatory minimums imposed by federal law.
We wrote about the basics of mandatory minimums for drug charges in a recent blog post. These minimums apply to charges including distribution, trafficking, and possession with the intent to distribute.
Charges are determined by the amount and type of drugs involved, the amount of convictions the individual has on his or her record, and whether or not bodily injury or death was involved in the case. This last factor is important – if bodily injury or death was involved, minimums can jump from 5 years to 20 years.
Additionally, if you have been convicted of three federal charges, you will be sentenced to life in prison. Individuals who have been convicted on federal drug crimes are also prohibited from being released on parole.
Again, despite the conversation that Obama’s commutations and pardons has sparked, these mandatory minimums are still in effect. If you have been charged with federal drug crimes, you will need to consult with a serious federal defense lawyer to avoid the harsh sentences mandated by federal law.