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Commuting Drug Sentences

Should Oregon's governor take a cue from the President?



Should you have to stay in prison when your crime is no longer a crime?

Last week, Smoke Signals detailed the difficulties facing people who have been convicted of cannabis-related felonies. Even after repaying their debt to society, these folks have great difficulty finding jobs, housing, loans and other basic necessities of modern life in America. But what about those who are still imprisoned for their crimes? Should someone stay in prison when their "crime" is no longer a crime? Should someone continue to serve a sentence that goes well beyond what would now be given?

Thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing laws and drug laws requiring lengthy sentences for drug-related crimes, there are thousands of people in state and federal prisons around the country serving decades-long sentences, or even life sentences, for selling cannabis – something that can now be a legal, tax-paying business in Oregon and other states.

President Obama spent most of his two terms in office ignoring this issue, even though he was reportedly a "recreational" cannabis user during his youth. Under the Constitution, the President has broad powers to address perceived inequities in the criminal justice system. Obama has the power to pardon those convicted of federal crimes, completely removing any legal liabilities associated with the conviction. He also has the power to commute sentences, releasing a prisoner immediately or at a time he specifies.

Amid shockingly bipartisan sentiment that America's drug laws have gone too far, Obama has recently taken action. In 2011, then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced a clemency initiative that made approximately 10,000 federal prisoners eligible for either immediate release or a reduced sentence. Due to bureaucratic red tape though, nothing happened until 2014, when the Justice Department attempted to fast-track the process by focusing on the worst cases­those who have already served at least 10 years, have no history of violence and no ties to criminal organizations.

So far this month, Obama has commuted 111 sentences, bringing the total to 673, far more than any other President. Still, it's estimated that more than 3,200 additional prisoners meet the narrow criteria Obama has laid out. The process is slow, requiring review of each case individually. Observers report that the program is plagued by inefficiency and poor organization, and it remains to be seen how many eligible prisoners will actually receive relief before Obama leaves office early next year.

Perhaps most importantly for Oregonians though: the President has no power over those convicted of state crimes. That power lies with our governor—and there's no doubt the taxpayers are paying to keep many people imprisoned even after the underlying crime has become moot. Although the Legislature has acted to reduce cannabis-related sentences, Gov. Brown has apparently taken no action to commute the sentences of those still imprisoned. Although the end of a term is usually when executives take such action, the fact that Gov. Brown is running for another term may make such action unlikely.

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