The Biden administration has signaled to criminal justice reform activists that he may use his clemency powers to release numerous people incarcerated in federal prison before the midterm elections in 2022.
“We asked them not to wait to the end of a term to execute pardon and commutation power for photo ops, and they definitely assured us that is not this administration’s plan,” DeAnna Hoskins, the president of JustLeadershipUSA, told the New York Times.
Hoskins and other reform activists participated in a Zoom session with former prisoners and White House officials in April. According to the Times, the group came away from the meeting hopeful that the president will make good on his promise to promote equity and justice from within his government.
During his campaign, Biden apologized for enacting a string of laws — like the 1994 Crime Bill — that disproportionately affected the Black community and laid the groundwork for mass incarceration.
“[Biden] has a special obligation given his history to use the power of clemency to fix these issues, because he was the architect of so many of the mass incarceration policies that we are now trying to repeal,” said Udi Ofer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) justice division.
White House officials and the Justice Department are said to be evaluating requests to secure the release of individuals facing extremely long sentences for nonviolent crimes and drug offenses, the Times reported May 17. The administration is also deciding what to do about thousands of low-level offenders released to home confinement during the coronavirus pandemic, the story noted.
The Justice Department expects these people to return to federal prison when the pandemic ends, unless President Biden extends their home confinement or grants them clemency, according to the Times.
The ACLU is also calling for the release of about 25,000 people who are elderly, sick, and who were swept up in the war on drugs or other racist policies that have since been repealed, the story said. Other activists have said Biden should grant clemency for some people convicted of crimes, even including murder, that may be related to their civil rights activism — such as members of the Black Panther Party, the story said.
The president should focus on a deliberate process that identifies whole classes of people who deserve mercy, said Dorsey Nunn, executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC), who participated in the Zoom meeting.
Nunn said he remains skeptical that Biden will use his clemency powers to release Black Panther activists.
Granting potentially thousands of clemency requests prior to the midterm elections could be a political risk for the Biden administration, the newspaper said. But criminal justice reform activists, like Brittany White of Live Free, believe that any political backlash could be neutralized by mobilizing millions of voters hurt by mass incarceration.
“Black voters especially feel a sense of loyalty and affection, I believe, for those who uphold our values,” Ms. White said. LiveFree became known for its successful work to drive up voter turnout among formerly incarcerated people in the Georgia Senate runoff elections in January.
Clemency requests granted by former President Trump mostly bypassed the Justice Department. He granted clemency to friends and supporters. Biden said he will grant clemency based on Justice Department recommendations.