This week, President Biden used his executive powers to commute the federal sentences of 75 people — a first step toward addressing his campaign promise to release some people “facing unduly long sentences.” While this action is promising and will be life-altering for each of the 75, it took nearly 100 days into his second year in office for Biden to act on his promise and grant clemency to a single person, Prison Policy Initiative reports. What’s more, many of the people receiving commutations are already released on home confinement due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and all were convicted of “nonviolent” drug offenses. The president has the power to grant commutations to large categories of people in federal prisons independently — without any action by Congress, the Department of Justice, or another third party. Despite this broad power, most U.S. presidents in the era of mass incarceration have been hesitant to use their powers of commutation.
President Biden’s recent announcement that he is commuting the sentences of 75 individuals is promising, and marks a higher level of action than his recent predecessors had taken at this point in their presidencies. While the President has set a positive precedent by issuing commutations relatively early in his presidency, the impact of these specific commutations may be less than one would expect. None of the sentences commuted will expire immediately, and many of the individuals who received commutations were already placed on home confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic. PPI also looked at commutation practices in eight states, finding that state executive branches also chronically underuse their commutation powers. The states in the sample granted 210 commutations from 2005 through mid-2021, an average of 13 grants a year. The average total prison population across these eight states from 2005 to 2020 was about 130,000, meaning that each year, these states commuted about one of every 10,000 imprisoned people. Five of the states each reported granting just five commutations or fewer over 16.5 years. Almost no states in the sample increased their rate of commutations during the pandemic.