WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is looking for convicts worthy of his rarely used power to commute sentences.
Obama has directed the Justice Department to improve its clemency recommendation process and recruit more applications from convicts, White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler said Tuesday.
Most recently, Obama reduced the prison time for a man facing longer time behind bars because of a typographical error. The commutation of Ceasar Cantu’s sentence from 15 to 11½ years demonstrates “the importance of clemency as a fail-safe mechanism” for those who run out of options, Ruemmler said.
“The president believes that one important purpose can be to help correct the effects of outdated and overly harsh sentences that Congress and the American people have since recognized are no longer in the best interests of justice,” Ruemmler said Tuesday at New York University’s law school. “This effort also reflects the reality that our overburdened federal prison population includes many low-level, nonviolent offenders without significant criminal histories.”
Cantu is only the 10th inmate Obama has granted a commutation. He pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and money laundering after prosecutors said he used his Houston trucking company to help move tons of marijuana from Mexico through Texas and into Virginia.
He was sentenced in Danville, Va., in 2006 by U.S. District Judge Jackson Kiser, who based his decision on a pre-sentencing report that had a critical error in “base offense level” that takes into consideration the crime’s severity and the defendant’s criminal history to come up with a sentencing guideline. The report correctly listed Cantu’s level at 34 in one part, but incorrectly listed it at 36 in the portion that calculated a recommended sentence of up to nearly 22 years.
Kiser noted at sentencing that although Cantu didn’t have a criminal record, the quantity of drugs involved in his case deserved a sentence within the recommended guidelines. The judge told Cantu the best he could do was sentence him at the bottom of the guideline. But if the calculation had been correct, the bottom of the guideline would have been 3½ years less.
The White House said Obama decided to grant clemency because it was the only way to correct the mistake.
Obama commuted only one sentence in his first term, causing critics to charge that he was being too stingy with his power. Last December, Obama cut time for eight defendants sentenced under old guidelines that treated convictions for crack cocaine offenses more harshly than those involving the powder form of the drug. Critics blamed the disparity for longer sentences being handed to black convicts, and Obama changed the sentencing standards for future cases beginning in 2010.
Ruemmler said the administration believes there is a larger pool of meritorious candidates for both pardons and commutations, and encouraged both types of applications. A pardon forgives a crime without erasing the conviction, typically after the sentence has been served. A commutation leaves the conviction and ends the punishment.
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