RESTORING JUSTICE

Cory’s Plan to Extend Clemency to People Serving Excessive Sentences

Cory Booker
Jun 20 · 7 min read

The War on Drugs has been a war on people, tearing families apart, ruining lives, and disproportionately affecting people of color and low-income individuals — all without making us safer.

When it comes to restoring justice, we can’t be timid.

As president, I will act immediately to right these wrongs, starting by initiating a clemency process for thousands of nonviolent drug offenders who have been handed unjust sentences by their government. Granting clemency won’t repair all the damage that has been done by the War on Drugs and our broken criminal justice system, but it will help our country confront this injustice and begin to heal.

— Cory Booker

The Restoring Justice Initiative

The Restoring Justice Initiative builds on Cory’s long record of working to reform the broken criminal justice system. Since his days on the Newark City Council and as mayor, Cory has been a relentless advocate for criminal justice reform, building unusual coalitions to make real change.

In the Senate, his work was a critical factor in passing the First Step Act — a law that is turning the tide against mass incarceration. In addition, Cory has pushed for bold legislative reforms, such as the Marijuana Justice Act.

The power to grant clemency, however, is a broad power granted exclusively to the president by Article II of the Constitution without requiring action by Congress — a power that President Booker would use immediately to begin correcting some of the most egregious abuses of the failed War on Drugs.

On day one of his presidency, he will initiate a historic clemency process for an estimated 17,000-plus nonviolent drug offenders serving unjust and excessive sentences — representing the most sweeping clemency initiative in more than 150 years.

Why Clemency?

The United States, despite having less than five percent of the world’s population, has 20 percent of its incarcerated people. At 655 people per 100,000 in population, we have the highest per capita incarceration rate of any country. In addition, our criminal justice system is anchored in a deep and persistent legacy of discrimination. For example:

  • Though evidence shows no difference in the rate at which Black and white Americans use and sell drugs, Black Americans are nearly three times as likely to be arrested for doing so; once convicted, Black male offenders in the federal courts receive sentences 19.1 percent longer than those received by white male offenders.
  • Fixing our broken system extends beyond moral urgency; it’s also a fiscal imperative. In 2015 alone, we spent $3.3 billion — or $9.2 million each day — incarcerating people with drug-related charges.
  • At the federal level almost half of the prison population is comprised of people serving sentences for drug offenses. We need to change that.

Who’s Eligible?

Under the Restoring Justice Initiative, three broad classes of individuals serving sentences in federal prisons would be immediately considered for clemency.

Cory would use the power granted by the Pardon Clause of Article II of the Constitution to issue commutations for broad classes of individuals currently serving sentences for nonviolent drug offenses widely viewed as unduly harsh and rooted in racist and misguided federal policy.

Individuals serving sentences for marijuana-related offenses:

Already, 10 states — from Alaska to Michigan to Nevada — and Washington, DC have legalized marijuana, and 15 more have decriminalized the possession of certain amounts. And yet, thousands of people languish in prison for engaging in activity that two of the last three presidents have admitted to doing. Vast racial disparities exist: despite roughly equal rates of using marijuana, Blacks are nearly four times as likely as Whites to be arrested for doing so.

All told, as of 2012, the most recent year for which data is publicly available, 11,533 individuals are currently incarcerated in federal prisons for marijuana-related offenses.

Individuals serving sentences that would have been reduced under the First Step Act, if all the bill’s sentencing provisions had been applied retroactively:

The bipartisan First Step Act, approved by an 87–12 vote in the Senate, reduced the minimum sentences required for certain drug offenses. Minimum sentences reduced in the First Step Act included mandatory life sentences for a third drug offense (changed to a 25-year minimum sentence); 20-year mandatory minimum sentences for a second drug offense (reduced to 15 years); and fixes to the 924c “stacking” mechanism. However, these reforms were not made retroactive, meaning that someone sentenced on December 20, 2018 is serving more time than someone sentenced a day later (the date the bill was signed) for an identical offense.

As of October 2017, 3,816 individuals in this category would be eligible for a sentence reduction in accordance with the First Step Act through clemency.

Individuals currently incarcerated with unjust sentences due to the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine:

The sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine is a key driver of the gap in incarceration rates between Black and white people. In recent years, we have seen progress righting this historic wrong. For example, the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act reduced the crack-to-powder disparity from 100:1 to 18:1, and the First Step Act made the change retroactive, leading to the release of more than one thousand people. A disparity in sentencing, however, still exists. This effort would eliminate entirely the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences retroactively, a reform that should have occurred decades ago.

What Else Is in the Plan?

On day one in office, Cory would sign an executive order initiating a clemency process for thousands of people currently serving unjust drug sentences. The EO would charge the Bureau of Prisons, the Defender Services Division of the U.S. Courts, and the United States Sentencing Commission with immediately identifying individuals within the classes cited above that meet the stated eligibility parameters for clemency. It would also enable individuals to self-identify and submit their names for consideration.

The initiative will also revamp and streamline the clemency process more broadly through the creation of an Executive Clemency Panel situated at the White House. For individuals granted clemency, a federal interagency council would make policy recommendations to the Administration and Congress to facilitate their successful reentry, including identifying job and training opportunities, investing in rehabilitation programs, and targeting evidence-based social services.

The bipartisan Executive Clemency Panel would be comprised of advisors representing diverse sets of expertise to expeditiously process all cases. While the process would operate with a presumption of a recommendation of clemency, the panel would closely review cases and prison history and decline to forward recommendations for individuals who may pose a threat to public safety. For individuals granted clemency, a federal interagency council would make policy recommendations to the Administration and Congress to facilitate their successful reentry, including identifying job and training opportunities and targeting evidence-based social services.

The panel would also give a special presumption for release for those that are 50 years of age or older and have served lengthy sentences — as all evidence suggests that people typically age out of crime and are far less likely to recidivate. Cory would also appoint a senior official in the White House to advise him on criminal justice issues, charged with advancing a proactive reform agenda.

Cory’s Record

Since his early days in the Senate, Cory has fought relentlessly to reform our broken criminal justice system. He was a key architect of last year’s landmark First Step Act, and was instrumental in adding critical sentencing provisions eventually included in the final package. He has authored or co-authored a number of groundbreaking bills, including legislation to:

  • Modernize federal drug sentencing policies by providing federal judges with more discretion in sentencing individuals convicted of non-violent offenses.
  • Support incarcerated women by ensuring that they have access to communication with their families, trauma-informed care, and free basic hygiene products.
  • Restore voting rights to individuals after they have been released from incarceration, which will strengthen communities and reduce recidivism rates.
  • Reform policing practices and increase accountability of law enforcement agencies nationwide by requiring states to report use of force incidents that occur between law enforcement officers and civilians to the Justice Department.
  • Help non-violent drug offenders to petition courts to have their convictions sealed and expunged.
  • Alleviate barriers to employment by prohibiting federal employers from inquiring about a job applicant’s criminal history before the conditional offer stage.
  • Invest in communities most impacted by the War on Drugs by legalizing marijuana, expunging non-violent marijuana convictions, and using profits from marijuana sales to create a community reinvestment fund.
  • Fight against discrimination by prohibiting the use of racial profiling by law enforcement agencies.

Building on these legislative efforts, Cory introduced the Next Step Act—comprehensive legislation to eliminate sentencing disparities within the justice system—in March to combat racially-biased policing, and better reintegrate those who have served time.

Progress has been far too slow, and thousands of people continue to languish in prison — brick-and-mortar warehouses of human potential. The impact of the failed War on Drugs is not limited to those presently incarcerated; across the country, families and communities have been hollowed out by missing fathers, sons, mothers, and daughters.

If you agree that we need a clemency initiative to restore justice and send people serving unjust sentences home, join us by adding your name here.

Cory Booker

Written by

U.S. senator from New Jersey and Democratic candidate for president.