A partisan holdout in the Justice Department apparently made it difficult for President Barack Obama to pardon non-violent drug offenders during his first six years in office. But Obama says he plans to make up for lost time.

President Barack ObamaThe president said he used his clemency powers sparingly over the last six years because the Office of the Pardon Attorney, part of the Department of Justice, gummed up the process. Ronald L. Rodgers resigned as pardon attorney last spring after years of criticism from criminal justice advocates.

Rodgers was appointed by President George W. Bush and managed to hold onto the office well into Obama’s second term. Critics said he ran an incompetent system designed to benefit conservatives.

The DOJ’s inspector general censured Rodgers in 2012, saying he “fell substantially short of the high standards to be expected of Department of Justice employees and of the duty that he owed to the President of the United States.”

Obama will use his clemency powers aggressively

Now Obama says he plans to grant many more pardons and commutations during his last two years in office.

“I noticed that what I was getting was mostly small-time crimes from very long ago,” he said. “It’d be a 65-year-old who wanted a pardon to get his gun rights back. Most of them were legitimate, but they didn’t address the broader issues that we face, particularly around non-violent drug offenses. So we’ve revamped now the DOJ office. We’re now getting much more representative applicants.”

Rodgers apparently mismanaged his office in an attempt to block the president from enacting drug policy reforms. Obama said he would now use his clemency powers “more aggressively.”

More than 2 million Americans are currently in jail or prison, with another 5 million under court-ordered monitoring (probation, house arrest, or parole). More than half of these prisoners are incarcerated because of drug crimes, and roughly 30 percent of those inmates are behind bars on marijuana charges.

15% inmates incarcerated for low-level marijuana offenses

man smoking joint

That means about 15 percent of prison or jail inmates, about 300,000 people, are doing time for pot crimes, most of them nonviolent and low-level. A stunning number of people – especially black people – are serving sentences for simple marijuana possession in states where the drug is criminalized.

It’s unlikely the president will grant clemency to cannabis offenders en masse, as President Jimmy Carter did with draft dodgers two years after the end of the Vietnam War. But he could pardon or commute a fair number of sentences, given the large number of unjust imprisonments.

Under the U.S. Constitution, Obama is the only federal official allowed to grant pardons. The power is nearly absolute, meaning the president can grant clemency to almost anyone, regardless of crime, though some pardons generate intense political controversy.

About the Author: Matt Brooks

Matt is a journalist from San Francisco who has specialized in marijuana policy for more than six years.

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