The season of advent is a season of mercy. God’s gift of Jesus to the world was prophesied by Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, as a “tender mercy” (Luke 1:78). For the last 1500 years, Advent has been a season of merciful acts in the churches of Western Christianity. What steps can we take in this season to help make mercy real in the world?
A fundamental form of mercy is forgiveness of transgression. In our society, we punish transgression by imprisonment. Contemporary America is one of the most punishing societies in history. Our current rate of imprisonment is over 700 persons per 100,000 population. This is a huge increase compared to our historic rate of imprisonment for the half century between 1920 and 1970 of about 110-140 per 100,000. No country – not China, Russia, Iran, etc. – imprisons its population at rates like America’s current rate. America is now imprisoning so many people that, even though about 1 out of 20 people in the world live in the U.S., 1 out of 4 of the world’s prisoners are kept in cells in the U.S.!
The federal prison population has been one of the fasting growing prison populations in the world. From a prison population of about 25,000 in 1979, our current federal prison population is now 190,000. Half of those prisoners are serving charges in drug cases, and most of those sentences are much longer than most observers think is just. All the Federal judicial councils, which almost never express controversial views, have adopted resolutions condemning federal mandatory minimum drug sentences and some judges, in regions like Texas and Mississippi, for example, have called the sentences “manifestly unjust.”
The Framers of the Constitution envisioned the presidential power of reprieve and pardon as the justice system’s last chance to correct instances of manifest injustice. Since President Washington, every president has used this tool for mercy, and commuted the sentences of federal prisoners.
For the past century, in that merciful spirit, most Presidents of the United States have granted pardons and commutations of sentence in December – the season of Advent. Unfortunately, this practice became less frequent in the past 25 years.
On December 19, President Obama shortened the sentences of 153 federal prisoners. This was an important act of mercy. Since 2014, President Obama has increasingly used this power to reduce the sentences of low-level drug offenders. The White House is noting that this year, President Obama has now commuted the sentences of 1,176 prisoners – more than any previous president in one year. But some caveats must be noted, first, that there are now more federal prisoners than any other president ever saw incarcerated – 190,058 currently; second, over 11,000 prisoners are awaiting action by the President on their petitions to have their long sentences reduced; and third, President Obama has denied the petitions of over 14,000 prisoners since 2009.
President Obama has said he is “committed to using all the tools at his disposal to remedy the unfairness at the heart of the [federal criminal justice] system —including the presidential power to grant clemency.”
As people of faith, we need to applaud President Obama’s exercise of his power to do mercy. In November, the President issued two rounds of commutation of sentences and the White House said, “What President Obama has done for commutations is unprecedented in the modern era. The President is committed to reinvigorating the clemency authority…” We need to support President Obama in honoring his commitment. Some advocates have urged the President to speed up this process before January 20. President Obama should ask the U.S. Sentencing Commission and Bureau of Prisons to share with him the names of prisons who are low-level offenders who would be given shorter sentences now, due to the 2010 change in sentencing law, compared to the pre-2010 sentence they are now serving.
The Bureau of Prisons should share the names of prisoners who have perfect prison records and who are, by virtue of their “custody level,” the lowest priority prisoners. We need to call his office, 202-456-1111 to tell him we want him to commute the sentences of more prisoners. We need to write letters to the editors of newspapers that we want the president to commute the sentences of more prisoners before January 20, 2017.
It is a good thing to ask the President to do justice, to save money, to give ex-offenders a second chance at a decent life, to return fathers and mothers home to their children, and to act mercifully. To become an advocate for mercy is a perfect thing to do during the Twelve Days of Christmas.
About the Author
Eric E. Sterling is Executive Director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation located at 8730 Georgia Ave., Suite 400, Silver Spring, MD 20910.