Of the 208 recently pardoned, the organization reports,109 were sentenced to serve life without parole and many were incarcerated by the so-called war on drugs, which Black and brown people have been adversely impacted by since harsh penalties and mandatory minimums were enacted for the “public safety” many years ago.
And President Obama, who vowed to enact criminal justice reform, has done more and commuted more sentences than all of his predecessors combined. In fact, Newsweek notes that the U.S. prison population fell the most in almost four decades to 1.53 million inmates in 2015, resulting in the lowest rate of incarceration in a generation.
However, two longtime activists argue that the executive clemency process itself has historically shown patterns of racial bias; the same holds true even during the Obama presidency.
In an op-ed for The Hill, Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele and Monifa Akinwole-Bandele cite a 2011 ProPublica investigation that found that even when applicants committed similar crimes, White criminals have been nearly four times as likely to succeed, and “Blacks have had the poorest chance of receiving the president’s ultimate act of mercy…”
Further, they write about how the “war on drugs” has aided and abetted the mass incarceration and destruction of Black and brown lives.
“This is part of why President Obama’s … commutations are just and appropriate. It would be equally appropriate for President Obama to look back to the 60s and 70s where there was another racially motivated and unjust war in America that also destroyed lives, devastated communities, and pushed people into prison,” they wrote.
The authors go on to name activists from the 1960s and ’70s who fought courageously for social, economic and yes, racial justice—many of whom were killed, incarcerated and otherwise “neutralized” by government programs such the Counter Intelligence Program or COINTELPRO. Yet, White activists from this time period have managed to have their sentences commuted. They continue:
“Under the past presidencies, some political activists, whose incarcerations stem from their activism, have been granted executive clemency. Yet when it comes to relief granted to the prisoners whose convictions grow out of social justice movements during a time of relentless government-led targeting, attacks, and violence, race also matters.
Former prisoners and activists of the civil rights movement like Susan Rosenberg, Linda Evans and Kathy Boudin have been rightfully granted clemency throughout the past few decades and are free. In fact, this month, New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo commuted the sentence of Judy Clark, saying that he “got a sense of her soul” during a meeting where they discussed her case and potential release. Rosenberg, Evans, Boudin, and Clark are white.
Meanwhile, another prisoner whose case connects to theirs, Mutulu Shakur, a documented target of COINTELPRO, awaits a response to his application for executive clemency to President Barack Obama.”
The Akinwole-Bandeles argue that President Obama “has a unique and valuable opportunity to set a tone of political reconciliation, justice and healing” and releasing prisoners such as Mutulu Shakur, Leonard Peltier and Veronza Bowers (Oscar Lopez was in fact granted a pardon on Tuesday)—all of whom have been incarcerated in federal prison for over 30 years—would be a step in the right direction.
The President has about one more day to make such a request a reality.