By Christopher Zoukis
Christmas came early for some prisoners this past Friday, when President Obama commuted the sentences of 94 prisoners, nearly all of whom were incarcerated for drug-related offences. It brings the total of commutations to 184 during his presidency—bested only by Lyndon B. Johnson’s 226. We must remember, however, that these commutations are largely symbolic in nature, designed to illustrate his commitment to restructuring the current American penal and justice system; the number of individuals commuted and pardoned represent just the tip of iceberg when it comes to unjust sentencing laws. The individuals who received this good new are clearly sharing an unimaginable joy with their families and loved ones, especially at this time of year. But these commutations also represent Obama sending a message to the country reminding us of how much work remains to be done.
It’s the same type of commitment being demonstrated by Governor Cuomo when it comes to the proposal to offer pardons for young offenders convicted of nonviolent misdemeanors who kept a clean record for the subsequent 10 years. At the moment, roughly 10,000 individuals might qualify. There is, obviously, a very practical benefit for those individuals who qualify, especially when it comes to seeking employment (certainly until “ban the box” initiatives move into becoming actual law). But the symbolic importance once again cannot be underestimated. It tells the world that we recognize the potential for individuals to change for the better. It also pushes us to look inwards at how we, as a society, may have failed these youths, and in doing so, how we can change the course for others.
The efforts of both Obama and Cuomo appear to be in reaction to the failure of bipartisan negotiations at both the state and federal levels to deal with the pressing issue of prison and sentencing reform. While the year started off positively with an incredible amount of support across the aisles, things have become stymied by bureaucracy and money (not least of which comes from entities like the Koch Brothers and the likes of private prison companies like Geo Group).
In the absence of institutional and structural reform, obviously these acts are appreciated. But we must not forget the bigger fight here: the battle for a system that embraces its humanity and is committed to a more just society for all.