Brennan Center Statement on Pres. Obama's Clemency Action

December 19, 2013

Today, President Barack H. Obama granted clemency to 21 federal prisoners, including 8 commutations for inmates convicted of crack cocaine-related drug offenses. This is the first retroactive relief for individuals convicted of drug offenses since Attorney General Eric Holder’s August announcement of a directive to curb use of mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders.

“Through his actions today, the President has signaled his willingness to undertake needed reforms to the criminal justice system,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, Director of the Brennan Center’s Washington, D.C. Office. “For too long, harsh sentences and punitive policies have fed a system of mass incarceration in this country. A comprehensive effort, involving the administration and Congress, is needed to solve this crisis and return balance to the scales of justice by creating a more rational, fair, and cost-effective criminal justice system.”

Since 1980, the federal prison population has increased by 800 percent. Several key legislative acts contributed to the exponential increase in the federal prison population including the expanded use of mandatory minimum penalties for drug crimes, the increasing federalization of crimes, the elimination of parole for federal inmates, and the perverse incentives created by funding mechanisms. 

A new policy proposal by the Brennan Center sets out a plan to leverage federal funding to reform the criminal justice system. Using “Success-Oriented Funding” it would drive the justice system toward the twin goals of reducing crime and reducing mass incarceration, starting with the nation's largest criminal justice grant.

Read a summary of the proposal and the full proposal here