Matthew Charles had served more than two decades in prison for dealing crack cocaine when a judge ordered his release in 2016, believing that a change in federal sentencing guidelines applied to him retroactively. Charles had been a free man for two years, leading a law-abiding and productive life, when he was ordered back to prison to serve yet another decade because federal prosecutors successfully appealed the judge’s decision. The blatant injustice of the situation prompted advocates on the left and the right to urge President Donald Trump to grant him clemency. Thankfully for Charles, he did not ultimately need Trump’s intervention, because the recently passed First Step Act allowed for retroactive adjustments to crack sentences, and he was again released—this time for good. But most of the First Step Act’s provisions fix the law only going forward, leaving behind thousands to serve disproportionate sentences that courts no longer give. For them, clemency from the president remains the only source of relief available.
It took six years of intense wrangling to get the First Step Act passed. Clemency reform, however, requires the action of only one man. The president can act alone to fix what Congress did not.
Even the First Step Act’s primary nemesis, Republican Senator Tom Cotton, has acknowledged a role for clemency, saying as part of his attack on the legislation, “I grant that, in a particular case, the interaction of specific facts and the law can create an unjust sentence. If that happens, the best course of action is the scalpel of the governor or the president’s pardon and clemency power, not the ax of criminal leniency legislation.”
Unjust sentences resulting from mandatory minimums are not rarities. That is why the First Step Act no longer permits mandatory minimum life sentences for third-strike drug offenses and lowered a two-strike, 20-year mandatory minimum for drug offenses to 15 years. The Act also requires that an individual first be convicted of an offense involving a firearm before receiving an additional 25-year mandatory minimum if he commits a second offense with a gun. (Previously, first-time offenders such as Weldon Angelos could receive multiple 25-year mandatory enhancements if the police documented multiple drug buys before making an arrest.)
One problem, as noted above, is that these and other welcome changes do not operate retroactively. People serving sentences now deemed excessive by Congress and the president have no recourse other than clemency to have those sentences rightsized.
There are more than 3,000 people left in prison serving mandatory sentences under the old firearm-enhancement law and the three-strikes provision that imposed a life sentence. Add to that the many individuals who are serving excessive sentences because of prosecutorial overcharging, and it is easy to see the urgent need to correct these injustices.
For clemency to reach those thousands, the country needs a process that fairly, thoroughly, and efficiently evaluates candidates for a commutation (or shortening) of their sentence under the Constitution’s pardon power. At the moment, there are two possible processes, but neither works very well.
The first is informal: The president evaluates individual cases based on personal recommendations. This system does not scale.
The second, more formal method isn’t any better. It courses through seven levels of review, much of it through a hostile Department of Justice bureaucracy that tends to defer to local prosecutors who are, in turn, loath to undo the harsh sentences they sought in the first place. Indeed, the First Step Act passed in spite of DOJ opposition because those same prosecutors objected to lowering mandatory minimum sentences that give them so much bargaining power. This DOJ-dominated process, by all accounts, does not work well in finding good cases and delivering them to the constitutionally appointed decision maker: the president.
Some states have better systems in place. In Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, and South Carolina, among others, an expert board plays a leading role in identifying and evaluating good cases. The best-functioning boards consist of people with expertise in criminal justice, social work, and psychology, and represent key stakeholders such as former judges, defense lawyers, prosecutors, and community activists who share a common belief that the purpose of the pardon power is to temper justice with mercy.
This model could work at the federal level as well. The president could create a similar board of clemency advisers who represent a diverse range of experiences, including those who work in criminal defense or corrections and people who were formerly incarcerated. Ideally, this body would be bipartisan and work collaboratively with a professional staff to identify cases for the president. This body could also track the progress of individuals granted clemency to document how they use their second chances. Many no doubt will serve their communities ably, and publicizing their experiences could help counteract the risk of a single Willie Horton–type incident overshadowing the positive stories of people who have been granted clemency.
There’s a federal precedent for this model. President Gerald Ford impaneled an 18-member clemency board to help him with pardon requests from applicants charged with crimes related to avoiding the draft during the Vietnam War. That board was diverse and bipartisan, and ultimately recommended more than 13,000 pardons.
The members of the bipartisan coalition that pushed through sentencing reform were united by a belief in liberty, a desire to cut costs, a respect for public safety, and a belief in second chances. But as the name of their legislation indicates, sentencing reform was just a first step. Clemency should come next.