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As of last week, President Obama has used his clemency powers to reduce the sentences of more federal inmates than any president in nearly a century, and more than the previous nine presidents combined, according to a White House press release which announced the largest single day clemency action in 116 years. Obama commuted 214 sentences to bring his total as president to 562. He broke Franklin Roosevelt’s single-day record of 151, according to political scientist P.S. Ruckman, Jr.

But despite Obama’s recent success pardoning large numbers of federal inmates, he hasn’t come close to then-Attorney General Eric Holder‘s optimistic projections in 2011 — that as many as 10,000 people could be released early.

Since Obama began acting seriously on that projection, just two years ago (before then, he was on pace to be the lowest commuter and pardoner in 100 years, according to the Washington Post), the Justice Department has struggled to process an ever-increasing number of hopeful inmates’ cases.

And as late as January of this year, Obama’s Pardon Attorney, Deborah Leff, resigned in frustration, saying she was “unable to do [her] job effectively,” and pointing to restricted access to White House counsel and instructions she said she had received “to set aside thousands of petitions for pardon and traditional commutation.”

In her letter of resignation, Leff acknowledged the Obama administration’s 2014 pledge to focus on commuting the sentences of non-violent drug offenders who, had they been sentenced today, would have received far shorter sentences.

Clemency Project 2014, a group of non-profits and pro bono lawyers helping the Justice Department process case files, was established to support that effort. But to date, the White House isn’t anywhere near commuting the sentences of 10,000 people. That would have been a full five percent of the federal prison population.

And Obama’s record on pardons, or the full erasure of criminal liability rather than simply making a sentence shorter, is still much worse that his predecessors: The president has fully pardoned only 70 people. President Reagan granted 393 pardons, President Clinton granted 396, and President George W. Bush granted 189, according to USA Today. In fact, Obama has pardoned fewer people than any president since William McKinley, the first president for whom such statistics were recorded.

Though Obama has pledged to try and make up for the discrepancy — there were 1,378 pardon petitions pending presidential approval as of June 6, according to the Office of the Pardon Attorney — a mammoth bureaucratic process stands in his way: Pardons require a full FBI background check, and every inmate pardoned requires a huge investment of Justice Department and FBI resources.

It doesn’t help that the president is up against a political culture that has recently swung away from his favored motto on the issue, that America is “a nation of second chances” and towards Donald Trump’s: “Law and Order.”

Obama has mentioned the damaging effects of two notable cases on public sentiment towards the executive power today: Willie Horton, who committed rape and murder after being temporarily released from prison on a Massachusetts weekend furlough program, and Marc Rich, a billionaire commodities trader and Democratic donor on the lamb for tax evasion and other charges whose pardon the New York Times called “a shocking abuse of presidential power”.

Those two extremes, of the president’s clemency power as a representation of leniency towards violent criminals and political allies, may have inspired Obama’s guidelines for applying for clemency in his administration: Individuals seeking free legal help from the Clemency Project were required to have served 10 years of their sentence for a non-violent crime, without any record of significant violence in prisons and without any significant ties to gangs or cartels, among other things.

Last week, the New York Times editorial board, noting Obama’s broken promises, urged the president and the Justice Department to employ another tool at their disposal — the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984’s “compassionate release” provision, which was recently widened in a ruling by United States Sentencing Commission to include age, family and medical circumstances, and “other extraordinary and compelling reasons” as justification for reconsidering an inmate’s status.

Obama should act now to fulfill a central premise of his presidency — that the United States is a nation of second chances, and that it is a moral imperative to re-examine the cases of the unjustly imprisoned.



Blake Neff

Twitter screenshot

Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters

On July 10, CNN's Oliver Darcy reported that Blake Neff, the top writer for Tucker Carlson's prime-time Fox News show, had been anonymously posting racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and other offensive content on an online forum for five years. Neff used racist and homophobic slurs, referred to women in a derogatory manner, and pushed white supremacist content while writing for Carlson's show. Neff resigned after CNN contacted him for comment.

As Darcy reported, in an interview with the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, Neff claimed anything Carlson read during his show was initially drafted by him. Darcy also found instances where there was "some overlap between the forum and the show," as sometimes the "material Neff encountered on the forum found its way on to Carlson's show."

During a 2018 appearance on Fox's The Five to promote his book Ship of Fools, Carlson mentioned Neff by name, calling him a "wonderful writer." Carlson also included Neff in the acknowledgments of the book.

Before joining Fox News, Neff worked at The Daily Caller, a conservative news outlet that Carlson co-founded. The outlet has published a number of white supremacists, anti-Semites, and bigots.

Carlson has a long history of promoting white supremacist content on his show. His show has featured many guests who have connections to white supremacy and far-right extremism. Carlson has regularly been praised by Neo-Nazis and various far-right extremist figures, and he's been a hero on many white supremacist podcasts. Users of the extremist online message boards 4chan and 8chan have repeatedly praised Carlson.

The manifesto released by the gunman who killed 20 people in El Paso, Texas, in 2019 was strewn with content that echoed talking points from Carlson's show. Days after the shooting, Carlson declared that calling white supremacy a serious issue is a "hoax" as it is "actually not a real problem in America."

Carlson has been hemorrhaging advertisers following his racist coverage of the Black Lives Matters movement and the recent protests against police brutality. Now that we know his top writer was using content from white supremacist online message boards for Carlson's show, it is more imperative than ever that advertisers distance their brands away from this toxicity.