CURATED BY Dara Lind
2014-05-31 13:06:15 -0400
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On April 23, the Department of Justice announced a new initiative to make it easier for certain prisoners to get their sentences reduced — through what are known as "commutations." According to Yahoo News, the administration expects this initiative will allow "hundreds, maybe thousands" of prisoners to get their sentences reduced.
Commutations aren't the same as pardons. Pardons are for people who have already been out of prison for several years, and who have rehabilitated themselves. Commutations, by contrast, are for people who are currently serving prison terms that the president deems unfairly harsh. But they both follow the same bureaucratic process, managed by the Office of the Pardon Attorney.
Obama's track record on clemency — which covers both pardons and commutations — has been relatively stingy so far. In his first term, he granted only 22 pardons and commuted only one sentence. (To put that in context, Ronald Reagan pardoned 213 people in his first term.) Recent investigations have suggested that the Office of the Pardon Attorney has been creating a bottleneck in the process by recommending that most applications for pardons or commutations be rejected.
At the same time, Obama has also acknowledged that there are key racial disparities in prison sentences and has begun taking steps to increase the number of people who apply for commutations. The April 23 announcement makes two changes:
1) The administration is issuing clear standards for which criminals should apply to get their sentences reduced, which will make it easier for lawyers to work with offenders to submit applications.
2) The administration is replacing the current head of the Office of the Pardon Attorney, who has been blamed for the slow rate of pardons and commutations in Obama’s first term.
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