Obama’s Leniency Toward This Violent Offender Could Be a Cue to States

Among 95 commutations issued by the president is a former armed bank robber.
(Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Dec 21, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

President Obama commuted the federal prison sentences of 95 people and pardoned two others on Friday, making him second only to Lyndon Johnson when it comes to total commutations. The vast majority of prisoners who benefited from the president’s powers of clemency were nonviolent drug offenders, but two cases stood out from the rest: Carolyn Yvonne Butler of Texas, convicted of three counts of armed bank robbery and using a firearm during a violent crime, and George Andre Axam of Georgia, convicted of possessing a firearm as a felon.

While Obama has previously issued commutations for drug offenders whose rap sheets included firearm possession, this round was the first to include a violent offender, Butler. Axam’s offense was not classified as violent, though it did involve firing a gun at his daughter’s boyfriend. The majority of prisoners whose sentences were commuted will be released on April 16, 2016.

With these two cases, Obama strayed from well-worn territory in the criminal justice reform movement—that of increased leniency toward nonviolent drug offenders.

“It’s a good message to send to governors across the country, given that they have similar commutation and pardon powers that could be exercised this way,” Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, told TakePart.

A growing consensus around the high fiscal and human costs of the U.S. prison population has increased bipartisan support for reforming sentencing laws in recent years. These reforms have overwhelmingly focused on low-level drug offenders, shying away from those serving long sentences for violent crimes—even though violent offenders make up more than half of the state prison population, according to Mauer. Nearly half of federal prisoners, over whom Obama has clemency power, are convicted of drug offenses.

“It would not be surprising if many governors are still reluctant to look at cases of people convicted of violence,” Mauer said. “If they don’t pay attention to [those cases], it will inherently limit the degree of decarceration that we can achieve.”

That reluctance was visible on Sunday in New York, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he would invite thousands of people convicted of nonviolent felonies or misdemeanors at 16 or 17 years old to apply for pardons. As many as 10,000 people could qualify for pardons from Cuomo, according to The New York Times. Those convicted of violent offenses as teens are not eligible.

“Watching Cuomo speak to the same old nonviolent offender story is disheartening,” John Pfaff, a professor of law at Fordham University School of Law, told TakePart. “The conversation has to focus at some point on violent offenders.”

The professed goal of numerous advocacy organizations to cut the prison population by 50 percent can’t be achieved without addressing violent offenders, as noted by the nonprofit criminal justice news outlet The Marshall Project. Given that most violent offenders are in state prisons, much of the power to change the current highly punitive response to violent crime lies at the state level.

Still, Pfaff was encouraged by Obama’s choice to commute Butler’s and Axam’s sentences.

“The most powerful thing Obama can do is shape the national conversation,” he said. “There’s certainly no downside to Obama having done this, but more governors have to have the courage to come out and actually start commuting violent offenders’ sentences.”