President Joe Biden has recently made liberal use of his clemency power. The problem is that it’s often more symbolic than it is practical.
That dilemma was displayed earlier this week when the president carried out the years-long, pre-Thanksgiving tradition of pardoning two turkeys outside the White House. Chocolate and Chip were the lucky recipients this year. “The votes are in, they’ve been counted and verified, no ballot stuffing,” he said on Monday. “No fowl play.”
It’s a cute tradition. But I doubt it’s funny to the thousands of human petitioners whose pleas still fall on deaf ears.
Biden’s mass pardon last month for those convicted of simple marijuana possession under federal law is an example of all hat and no cattle. “I’m keeping my promise that no one should be in jail for merely using or possessing marijuana,” he said in October. “None.” There is no one in federal prison for simple marijuana possession anymore, but that was already the case before Biden issued his pardon.
Yes, thousands of people with misdemeanor records will have those convictions wiped. But not a single person was released from custody by the Bureau of Prisons due to Biden’s proclamation.
It’s not because there aren’t candidates. Thousands of people are still serving time in federal prison for marijuana-related offenses, like distribution. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice seeks potential life sentences for people convicted of such offenses.
“I don’t belong in prison any longer,” Edwin Rubis, 54, told The Washington Post from federal prison. He’s spent about 25 years behind bars for conspiracy to distribute cannabis and isn’t projected to be released for another decade. “I might have belonged in prison when I first came in, the first two, three, four years, but I have done so many things that the system has asked me to do. I believe I’m truly rehabilitated.” Rubis earned a master’s in Christian counseling, has led bible studies, and is finishing his doctorate.
The president also granted three pardons and 75 commutations in April after a little over a year in office. “Although Biden waited more than 15 months before issuing any pardons or commutations, that delay compares favorably to those of many previous presidents,” wrote Reason‘s Jacob Sullum after Biden’s April announcement. “Even Barack Obama, who ultimately granted a record 1,715 commutations, did not approve any until the last year of his first term, and then just one.”
Yet the presidential pardon power can and should be used more often. Not just for turkeys, but for the thousands of people serving decades due to draconian drug laws that Biden supported for most of his political career.