It’s no secret that I believe Barack Obama to be the worst president of my life time. And while I’m young and often times cynical about his decision making skills, I’ll give credit where credit is due. Just last week I commended him for switching from pleated pants to flat front pants. These are positive strides.
Also last week, which I will admit I missed when it was ‘news’, was the announcement of commuted sentences for 8 convicted felons by President Obama. One of the gentleman, Jason Hernandez, was sentenced to life in prison for a drug conspiracy charge when he was 18 years old on a charge that occurred when he was 15. According to a full story by Huffington Post, Hernandez was convicted when the disparity between crack charges and cocaine charges was
much more vast (100-1 versus today’s 18-1). For these reasons, I believe the commuted sentence was proper, but it does give rise to three very separate issues:
1) Despite being explicitly stated in the Constitution, does the role of the executive circumvent the judiciary by commuting sentences?
2) Do we really support the idea of commuted sentences through executive power even if it is under the right circumstances?
3) The ridiculousness of victimless crimes and the subsequent sentences is ever so present.
I’ll start with the first one. Obviously my first reaction is that the sentence is simply outrageous and even with several “priors” as a juvenile, previous charges and convictions do not compile the same way some states apply “three strikes” laws or point systems for adults.
I also believe the justice system should exemplify its name…it should be just.
Executive orders and sentence commuting seem to circumvent the justice system and though we are a system of checks and balance, I struggle with whether or not this type of action is an overreach.
According to the US Department of Justice Pardon Attorney website:
Under the Constitution, the President has the authority to commute sentences for federal criminal convictions, which are those adjudicated in the United States District Courts. In addition, the President’s clemency power extends to convictions adjudicated in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. However, the President cannot commute a state criminal sentence. The President’s clemency power includes the authority to commute, or reduce, a sentence imposed upon conviction of a federal offense, including the authority to remit, or reduce, the amount of a fine or restitution order that has not already been paid. This form of clemency is different from a pardon after completion of sentence.”
The list of of commuted sentences and pardons which should not have occurred is more than likely long. Commuted sentences can illustrate significant discretion but that discretion is not stemming from the judiciary. Is that fair and just? Bleeding into #2, the issue arises on equality. Every case has its own facts and circumstances but at what point is it just for one person to have a commuted sentence and not another? The justice system is flooded with mistaken facts, wrongful accusations and improper trials. Certainly each and every case can’t be examined by the Pardon Attorney. Is this an efficient avenue to ensure justice? If the idea is based on principle, consistency is key.
Number three goes a lot deeper, and victimless crimes could span a whole series of blogs, but to keep it short and simple…conspiracies surrounding drug crimes do not warrant life in prison. Who was harmed? Does a lifetime in jail offer retribution to society on behalf of Mr. Hernandez? Does the punishment fit the crime?
The way in which these questions are answered calls for further evaluation of the laws on the books, not necessarily review by the executive branch. It also brings to the light the problems associated with minimum mandatory sentences and the ambiguity that stems from such statutes. Life in prison. Based on minimum mandatory sentences and victimless crimes. Life. In. Prison.
So to sum up firm position between a rock and a hard place…
I believe Jason Hernandez’s sentence was unreasonable, unwarranted and unjust, however, I question the justification for use of executive authority by the president to commute this sentence (and others). And I simply don’t know how to go about fixing any of it.