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A plan to reverse the war on drugs, from the Vietnam War era

What Democrats running for president have learned from President Ford on criminal justice.

President Gerald Ford speaking onstage at a podium with uniformed service members seated behind him, circa 1974.
President Ford announces his clemency plan for Vietnam War draft evaders.
David Hume Kennerly/ Getty Images

In 1974, Gerald Ford became president after some of the most difficult years in our country’s history.

In addition to Watergate and President Nixon’s resignation, the Vietnam War had divided the country for more than a decade. While millions of Americans served in Southeast Asia, many others protested the war at home — some of them by evading the draft. Ford wanted to find a way to bring the country back together. Just a few weeks after he took office, he announced a plan “to bind up the nation’s wounds.”

For the young men convicted of draft evasion — a felony — during the Vietnam War, Ford promised, “I’m throwing the weight of my presidency into the scales of justice on the side of leniency.”

Ford gave those young men an opportunity to apply to a Clemency Board, a small group appointed by the president who would decide whether to erase that felony from the men’s records. Now, many of the Democratic candidates for president want to follow Ford’s model for a new group of people in federal prison: those convicted of nonviolent drug crimes.

In this episode, The Impact looks back on President Ford’s clemency plan through the lives of two men: one who fought in Vietnam and served on the Clemency Board, and one who evaded the draft. We explore how the Board transformed their lives and what it might mean for a new generation of young people behind bars.

Further listening and reading:

  • The Uncertain Hour’s third season explores the war on drugs and its aftermath
  • Vox’s German Lopez on incarceration in America
  • Vox’s guide to where 2020 candidates stand on policy, including criminal justice reform
  • Professor Mark Osler’s law review article on Ford’s Clemency Review Board.

Subscribe to The Impact on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app to automatically get new episodes of the latest season each week.

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