Congressman Steve Cohen

Representing the 9th District of Tennessee

Cohen Applauds Obama Administration's Newly-Expanded Criteria for Executive Clemency

April 21, 2014
Press Release

Under new criteria, thousands of non-violent drug offenders could be eligible for commutations of unjust sentences that are relics from now-defunct policies

[MEMPHIS, TN] – Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, today applauded President Obama after it was announced that his Administration plans to use more expansive criteria in considering requests for executive clemency. The Administration’s new criteria will take an important step towards bringing justice to hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans still serving time in prison under unjust sentences that would not be ordered today and that have been repudiated by Congress and the President.

“From my first day in Congress, advocating for fairer sentencing laws and realistically examining sentencing disparities has been a centerpiece of my legislative agenda,” said Congressman Cohen. “After years of advocating on behalf of Americans who are unfairly incarcerated, the policies that I’ve encouraged the President and the Attorney General to adopt are now being implemented. I am very encouraged by the prospect that these new clemency criteria will give deserving non-violent drug offenders a second chance at freedom, improve our justice system, and save taxpayers money. President Obama can and should use his Constitutional power to help bring all of these inmates the justice they deserve, and I hope he does so as soon as possible.”

Today’s move by the Administration follows repeated requests from the Congressman for the President to make broader use of his pardon and commutation powers to address injustices, including urging Attorney General Eric Holder to address the issue on multiple occasions (most recently at a House Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this month), a letter sent to the President in June 2013, an August 2013 speech on Capitol Hill and a stirring column that appeared in The Nation. The pardon and commutation powers are, in addition to being the speediest method of bringing needed justice to thousands of people incarcerated under outdated crack cocaine sentences, one of the few actions that the President can take without being blocked or delayed by an obstructionist Congress.

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which Congressman Cohen cosponsored and the President signed into law, marked a turning point in our nation’s approach to drug policy and took a critical step towards eliminating the dramatic and unfair 100:1 disparity between crack and cocaine mandatory minimum sentences. Prior to President Obama signing the bill into law, those arrested for crack cocaine offenses—mostly young, African American men—were subject to far harsher penalties than those arrested for powder cocaine offenses, who are more likely to be Caucasian. An offender arrested with a mere 5 grams of crack cocaine would have faced the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence as an offender arrested with 500 grams of powder cocaine. While the law reduced the disparity, it did not apply retroactively to thousands of people who were sentenced before the law was passed are still serving sentences that have been repudiated by Congress and the President. These people should be made eligible for clemency under the criteria announced today.

In addition to the new criteria, reports have emerged that Ronald Rodgers—the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) lead pardon attorney charged with recommending candidates for clemency—will step down as part of broader reforms being made. Congressman Cohen wrote directly to the President urging Rodgers’ replacement because of his mediocre record of supporting clemency requests and in light of his having been admonished by the DOJ’s Inspector General for withholding and misrepresenting information.