On Super Bowl Sunday, Donald Trump’s reelection campaign aired an ad that would’ve been unthinkable for a politician during the 1980s or ’90s. It touted the clemency granted to Alice Johnson, an African American who was serving a life sentence for a drug offense, stoking hope among critics of mass incarceration that the early release of at least some people from prison is now broadly palatable. The president touted criminal-justice reform again in his State of the Union address last night.
Yet Trump has so far ruled on only 204 clemency requests, The Washington Post reports, “the slowest pace in decades.” Mandatory minimum laws still force judges to impose sentences longer than what they see as just. And parole boards and clemency commissions at the state level, where most inmates are held, often have their recommendations rejected not only by politicians who believe in mass incarceration, but by reformers who fear making any false step.
In Louisiana, for example, Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, made criminal-justice reform a plank of his campaign. “Since taking office, he has signed 34 commutations of sentence, allowing people convicted of serious violent crimes to be released on parole after decades behind bars,” the Baton Rouge newspaper The Advocate reports. “That’s a significant increase over the three granted by his predecessor, Republican Governor Bobby Jindal—but still only 16 percent of the 207 positive recommendations forwarded to his office from the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Parole, which completes its own stringent review process … Just 3 percent of all applications for sentence commutations received since 2016 have been granted thus far.”