Biden Looking at Issuing Clemency to Prisoners Early in Term

President Joe Biden reportedly is looking into granting clemency to people jailed on drug offenses, and sick and elderly people who pose no threat to society.

Biden could use presidential powers to pardon prisons or commute sentences as a way to appease supporters seeking criminal justice reform, The Hill reported Wednesday.

White House officials on Friday held a Zoom call with justice reform advocates and formerly incarcerated people.

“It was clear that they are working on something,” said call participant Norris Henderson, founder and executive director of New Orleans-based Voice of the Experienced. “They are looking at that right now as an avenue to start doing things.”

Presidents often wait until the end of their terms to grant significant numbers of pardons and commutations. Former President Barack Obama granted 330 on his final day in office, and former President Donald Trump granted 144 during his final hours in office.

Biden, however, has been pressured to pardon and commute sentences early in his term.

White House officials declined to comment after being asked about Biden’s plans to grant clemency or a timeline for doing so.

Some advocates seeking justice reform and to address racial injustice were disappointed Biden did not grant clemency to any prisoners during his first 100 days in office.

The Justice Department has a backlog of some 15,000 petitions for clemency, and the broad clemency powers afforded to the president could be a way for Biden to take action on reforming the justice system.

“[The call] was very promising because he already, from the White House perspective, has staff working on this,” said JustLeadershipUSA President Deana Hoskins, who added Biden is “not waiting until the end of his presidency” to issue pardons or commutations.

Brittany White, decarceration campaign manager at Live Free, also was on the call and agreed with Hoskins’ assessment.

“What we heard was a commitment that clemency will be used, that this administration is not afraid to use that as a tool but also does not necessarily feel the need to wait until the end of the term,” White said.

At least one call participant, though, tempered expectations.

College & Community Fellowship Executive Director Vivian Nixon said the White House officials were more noncommittal. There was not a “promise to do anything” but officials acknowledged “that they are looking at this issue very closely,” Nixon said.

During his campaign last year, Biden promised to use clemency power to “secure the release of individuals facing unduly long sentences for certain non-violent and drug crimes” if elected.

Biden hasn’t always pleased justice reform advocates. In 1994, he helped pass a crime bill that critics say contributed to mass incarceration and had a disproportionate impact on communities of color.

The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls wanted Biden to grant clemency to 100 women in his first 100 days in office – he did not – and the American Civil Liberties Union has petitioned Biden to grant clemency to 25,000 people as soon as possible.

“One thing that was very clear from the conversation was there will be a process,” Desmond Meade, president and executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said of the Zoom call. “At the end of the day, they know that there are changes that should be made, but there should be a process there that makes it fair for everyone.”

Domestic policy adviser Susan Rice, senior adviser Cedric Richmond, and counsel Dana Remus held the call on Friday to hear recommendations from advocates. Clemency was among the topics discussed.

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