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September 19, 2013 10:25 AM Barack Obama: ‘Unmerciful Drug Warrior’?

By Keith Humphreys

Jacob Sullum has penned a bizarre indictment of President Obama as “an unmerciful drug warrior” because Obama has pardoned or commuted the sentences of a historically small number of individuals who have been convicted of drug offenses. For example, Sullum notes that law-and-order President Richard Nixon commuted 60 sentences for drug offenders whereas President Obama has commuted only one.

If you accept Sullum’s premise that imprisoning large numbers of people through tough drug laws and then pardoning a few of them later is evidence of a merciful nature, then yes, many presidents outshine Obama in the mercy department. However, if you recognize that changing the underlying law and thereby freeing more drug offenders from prison than all pardons by all presidents in history combined, then Obama is an unusually merciful leader.

For decades national politicians bemoaned the unfair sentences for crack cocaine offenders, but did nothing to change the law. President Obama was the first president to actively pursue reform. The result was Congressional passage of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, the first time a mandatory minimum sentence (for anything, not just drugs) had been repealed in 40 years. Even before Attorney General Holder’s subsequent announcement that the Justice Department would reduce the use of mandatory minimums for drug offenders, Obama and Holder had done more to reduce incarceration of drug offenders than any comparable duo in U.S. history.

President Obama apparently believes in mercy that is broad in impact rather than tokenistic. And he makes mercy real through the legislative process of our democratic society rather than the royalist approach of unilateral executive action of which Sullum is, for a libertarian, oddly enamored. The end result may indeed be fewer pardons for drug offenses…because there’s going to be far fewer people who need one.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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