Pardon people, not turkeys, Mr President

Why is Obama so reluctant to reprieve the many Americans trapped in excessive life-without-parole sentences? A little mercy would be a true cause for giving thanks

Share

As expected, Popcorn and Caramel were spared. In a hokey ceremony at the White House last week – as much a part of the Thanksgiving ritual here as wall-to-wall televised football games and the storming of the stores by Christmas bargain-hunters – these two turkeys were pardoned by President Obama, in contrast to the estimated 46 million of their species who graced American dinner tables last Thursday.

And not only that. The fortunate birds had spent the previous night at the ritzy Willard Hotel nearby, in a room costing us humans $400 (£250) a night. They will now live out the rest of their days unmolested at a turkey farm in Virginia. And after this exercise of avian mercy, Obama might get around to treating his fellow citizens in the same way.

Quite why this president has been so reluctant to use a specifically granted constitutional power is not clear. It could, I suppose, reflect a former law professor's reverence for the majesty of American justice. It may be a reluctance to intervene on matters of race. Blacks are disproportionately victim of excessive sentences that scream for pardon or commutation, but Obama has bent over backwards while in office to avoid seeming an excessively pro-black president.

Or maybe he's just mindful of the criticism that swamped Bill Clinton when, on his last day in office, he pardoned the convicted tax evader and Iran sanctions-buster Marc Rich, in a widely suspected quid pro quo for millions of dollars of donations to Clinton's Democratic Party. Whatever the reason, however, the fact remains that Obama has issued fewer pardons than any of his predecessors.

Harry Truman, the most clement of modern presidents, handed out 2,044, while Richard Nixon, not exactly celebrated as a "soft-on-crime" guy, granted 926. Of late, pardons and commutations have been declining. Clinton doled out 456, and George W Bush only 176. But even that paltry figure eclipses Obama for whom, five years into his presidency, the figure is just 39 (of which 29 went to people not in jail but on probation).

His reluctance is all the more mystifying in that there are no more elections to fight, no more voters to win over – while any fuss that might arise from a more generous use of pardons would be the merest blip compared to the furore over his health-care reforms. One thing though is for sure. Never has the need for a little extra-curricular judicial mercy been greater.

Obama might, for instance, begin with Stephanie George of Florida. A first-time offender, she is currently serving life without parole after being convicted of belonging to a crack-cocaine conspiracy, even though the judge at her trial acknowledged she had been little more than the girlfriend of the real culprit. But his hands were tied; such are the crass exigencies of the "war on drugs", and the mandatory minimum sentencing used to prosecute it.

Or take Robert Riley, by every account a gentle soul, who was found guilty 20 years ago in Iowa of peddling tiny quantities of LSD at a rock concert. He was married and a father of two, with a job. Unfortunately, he had twice previously been convicted of minor marijuana offences. So life without parole it was, wrecking a family for ever.

These are but two cases highlighted in A Living Death, a chilling recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union, which documents 3,278 cases where non-violent offenders have been put behind bars for life. The true figure is almost certainly higher. Many are first-time drug offenders. Most are black, and, in some cases, says the ACLU, racial profiling played a part in their arrest. Others are mentally ill, their crimes directly related to their condition.

America belongs to the 20 per cent of countries that even have life-without-parole sentences on the books (Britain is one of just two in Europe) and most of these countries confine the jail term to murder convictions. Even China allows a review of life sentences after 25 years. Yet the number of "Lwops" here only grows.

In part, the trend is the other side of the coin of fewer death sentences; Lwops (which can be pronounced El-wops) have quadrupled since 1992, even as several states have abandoned capital punishment, and the number of executions is less than half its late-1990s peak. But in a state such as Louisiana the consequences have been bleak indeed; an astonishing one in nine of all inmates are "Lwop-ers".

Not that prisondom in Louisiana wants it that way. Burl Cain, warden of the infamous state penitentiary at Angola , described the situation to the ACLU as "ridiculous … the name of our business is corrections, but everybody forgets what 'correction' means; to correct deviant behaviour". If an inmate can go back to being a productive citizen, asks Cain, "then why are we keeping them here?". He might also have noted that study after study has shown that recidivism declines steeply with age.

None of this is lost on many judges, forced to impose sentences they consider – and declare to be – absurdly excessive. Nor is it lost on Eric Holder, Obama's Attorney General and as such the country's top law-enforcement official, who has instructed federal judges not to use mandatory minimums for lesser, non-violent drug offences. Nor is it lost on some in Congress, where at least two Bills calling for common-sense sentencing have been introduced.

But progress is agonising slow. Perhaps no more is to be expected from a country that incarcerates more of its citizens than any other, 743 per 100,000 inhabitants, some 2.3m in all. In these hard economic times however, that figure contains the seed of policy change. When budgets for almost every other public service are being trimmed, America simply can't afford to keep so many people in jail – least of all non-dangerous people condemned to die behind bars for offences that elsewhere wouldn't warrant jail time at all.

President Obama can't do it by himself. But the pardon of real people, as well as a couple of turkeys, each Thanksgiving would at least be a start.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office / Sales Manager

£22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Syria's Kurds have little choice but to flee amid the desolution, ruins and danger they face

Patrick Cockburn
A bartender serves two Mojito cocktails  

For the twenty-somethings of today, growing up is hard to do

Simon Kelner
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones