Commuting Prison Terms
Commuting prison terms could reverse the intergenerational failure spawned by our nation’s wrongheaded commitment to mass incarceration. President Obama has expressed an interest in expanding his use of executive clemency. Many people don’t even know what we mean when we talk about commuting prison terms.
What does “commuting prison terms” mean?
A prison commutation is a form of executive clemency. In the PrisonProfessor lesson plan on early release, I wrote about the different ways that a person in prison could advance the release date. Unfortunately, our prison system is designed to receive. It doesn’t have too many mechanisms that would allow an individual to work toward earning freedom.
I’ve always consider that lack of a release mechanism as a fundamental flaw of the system. Since people cannot work toward advancing their release date, they lose hope. Without hope, they adjust to the prison environment. The more they focus on easing the prison experience, the less likely they are to develop values, skills, resources, and plans to emerge successfully.
In the lesson plan on early release, I wrote about judicial remedies like appeals. Defense attorneys lead that process. A rarely used release mechanism allows prison administrators to recommend an early release for compassionate reasons. Since few would characterize the Bureau of Prisons as an agency of compassion, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that compassionate release comes extremely rarely.
Another mechanism for early release includes the Residential Drug Abuse Program, or RDAP. To qualify for early release through RDAP, the defendant must position himself by building a record that would show he or she qualifies. Successful participants who qualify for RDAP may advance their release date by up to 12 months.
In contrast, every federal defendant qualifies for executive clemency. Yet commutation is rare. Only the president can commute a federal prison term. Over the past several decades, presidents have been stingy with regard to their use of commutation powers. A commutation results in the president forgiving a portion of the prison term.
Commuting Prison Terms as a Policy Initiative
A policy for commuting prison terms would accomplish several socially useful goals. If the government implemented a commutation policy, it would restore hope for more than 200,000 people who are locked inside federal prisons. Supreme Court Justices like Anthony Kennedy have said that our nation confines too many people and they serve sentences that are far too long; Attorney General Eric Holder echoed those remarks.
A commutation policy would provide a release valve for those who have worked to earn freedom and for those who were sentenced to terms that are far too long. Further, such a policy initiative would encourage more people in prison to embark upon a disciplined, deliberate plan to prove worthy of a commutation. Finally, a commutation policy would lead to reforms in the prison system. Rather than interfering with personal growth and focusing on the turning of calendar pages, prison guards would encourage people in prison to work toward educating themselves and building strong community ties that would ease their transition into society as fully functioning, law-abiding citizens.
In order for the concept of commutation to work effectively, the Department of Justice would need to create a more systemic model for commuting prison terms. The model should guide government officials and guide prisoners. Currently, there is a lot of talk about commuting sentences. But the government has been silent with regard to an objective model for people in federal prison to work toward proving worthy of a sentence computation.