Why Has Obama Pardoned So Few Prisoners?
Six and a half years ago, I drove out to Lompoc federal penitentiary in the hills outside Santa Barbara to interview Weldon Angelos, a young man who had received the improbable sentence of fifty-five years without parole for selling marijuana, ostensibly while carrying a small pistol in an ankle holster.
A rap artist from Salt Lake City and friend to Napoleon and other eminences of the hip-hop world, Angelos had been ensnared by an informant in a series of undercover marijuana purchases that reeked of entrapment. What might have been a two-bit state pot case became a high-stakes federal case. When Angelos—who denied carrying a gun when dealing—refused to enter a guilty plea, the feds played hardball, piling more indictments onto the original charge. In December 2003, more than a year after he had been arrested, Angelos was found guilty on several counts, though he was acquitted on others. Because of mandatory minimum statutes linked to the firearms charges, the presiding judge—a George W. Bush appointee named Paul Cassell—was left with no discretion at sentencing. After asking the prosecuting and defense attorneys to advise him on the constitutionality of the sentence, a distraught Cassell handed down the fifty-five-year term, a punishment he called “unjust, cruel and even irrational.” In his opinion, he urged then-President Bush to pardon the young father of three and right a clear judicial wrong.
Angelos was 23 when he was arrested. He was in his mid-20s when I met him. It was such an obvious injustice that I thought the odds were pretty good he’d be out of prison by the time he was 30. Surely one or another president would pardon him or commute his sentence, either reducing it or allowing him to be released on time served.
But today Angelos is in his early 30s and fast approaching his ten-year anniversary behind bars. Bush didn’t pardon him. Neither has President Obama—despite earlier pleas on Angelos’s behalf from several ex-governors, dozens of ex–federal prosecutors and judges, and four US attorneys general; despite growing concerns over mandatory minimum sentences from members of Congress; despite the pledge by onetime Salt Lake City mayor and civil rights lawyer Rocky Anderson to “do anything I can to remedy this unbelievable injustice”; despite The Washington Post and other leading publications urging clemency; despite the fact that, at least rhetorically, the Obama administration has moved away from the sensational, fearmongering tactics of the drug war, and that drug czar Gil Kerlikowske doesn’t even like to talk about a “war on drugs”; despite the fact that in late 2012 Obama said the feds had “bigger fish to fry” than prosecuting marijuana users in states moving toward legalization; despite the fact that one state after another has rolled back its most draconian mandatory minimum sentences for small-time drug users and dealers.
“He has a family who deserve to see their father at home with them,” wrote Napoleon (Mutah Beale) in a letter to President Obama urging him to secure Angelos’s release. “But the most important thing is he can be a benefit to the troubled kids as Weldon is a changed man.”
So why hasn’t Obama done the right thing? Could it be that Angelos has just gotten lost in the shuffle? Possibly—but if that’s the reason, there would be evidence that Obama has used his pardon and commutation powers wisely in other cases. Unfortunately, that’s not true.
While in the White House, Bill Clinton pardoned well over 100 people. So did President Bush. To date, Obama has pardoned less than two dozen and commuted even fewer sentences. His first commutation wasn’t until late November 2011, when, according to CBS News, he ordered the release of a woman who had served ten years of a twenty-two-year sentence for cocaine distribution. CBS reported that “the latest numbers from the US Pardon Attorney show that since taking office Obama has denied 872 applications for pardons and 3,104 for commutations of sentence.” A year later, ThinkProgress reported that the only presidential pardon granted in 2012 was for the lucky turkey, as part of the Thanksgiving tradition.
A president who talks the talk about more sensible, nuanced drug policy, and whose oratory frequently invokes what is best in the American political imagination, has shown himself remarkably reluctant to use one of the most important of presidential prerogatives—the power to right judicial wrongs. “This president,” says Anderson, “has been unbelievably timid and disinclined to do justice in cases that scream out for commutation. There’s not a lot of moral or political fortitude in play.”
On January 5, The New York Times ran an editorial calling on the president to exercise his pardon power—while also pointing out that the Justice Department, too, “has undermined the process with huge backlogs and delays, and sometimes views pardons as an affront to federal efforts to fight crime.” The Times also blamed Ronald Rodgers, the lawyer who runs the Office of the Pardon Attorney and has obstructed the process, and argued that his office should be replaced with “a new bipartisan commission under the White House’s aegis, giving it ample resources and real independence.”
In the long run, when it comes to preventing future unjust sentences like the one given Angelos, Congress and state legislatures should be the ones to roll back the excesses of the drug war. And there’s no doubt that Obama, a constitutional law scholar, understands how much more powerful legislation is than the willful, even capricious, pardon function of the president. (After all, Clinton was excoriated for what appeared to be pardons issued in exchange for campaign and other contributions. And Bush was heavily criticized for commuting the prison term of his disgraced adviser Lewis Libby.) But when there’s a massive miscarriage of justice—as has happened all too often during the forty years of the “war on drugs”—the president’s ability to pardon or commute sentences is vital.
How does one tell Weldon Angelos’s kids that their father will not only never walk them to school but that he will never walk their children to school? That if he survives fifty-five years in prison, he might get out just in time to walk his great-grandchildren to school. It’s unconscionable that such a sentence should stand. If Angelos and other drug war prisoners with absurd sentences remain in prison through Obama’s second term, it will be a stain on the president’s legacy.
Liliana Segura recently talked with documentary film maker Rebecca Richman Cohen, in “Why Should Medical Marijuana Providers Die in Prison?” (Nov. 30).