Home

Will Obama's Criminal Justice Efforts End in Big Amnesty?

After President Barack Obama's immigration legislation push collapsed on Capitol Hill, he embarked on a massive executive amnesty. Could the same happen to his criminal justice plans? Obama has already dramatically stepped up his commutations, with 46 on Monday alone, what the White House said was the most in one day since the Johnson administration. He previously proposed a massive, albeit temporary executive amnesty for up to 5 million immigrants here illegally — an action now tied up in the courts. Unlike that effort, using his pardon power in the Constitution isn't likely to have the same legal entanglements Like immigration, reducing sentences for drug dealers — even nonviolent ones — isn't always an easy vote, particularly in the GOP. The White House still hopes for a breakthrough agreement, and pointed to efforts by Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., among others to reduce mandatory minimum sentences. The potential for such efforts to save money is a top Republican priority. "At this point, I think it's hard to jump to that conclusion primarily because there seems to be significantly more genuine bipartisan interest in criminal justice reform than there has been in immigration reform," Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday. "There are a large number of Republicans in Congress that have paid lip service to comprehensive immigration reform, but they've never actually had the courage to follow up on it," he said. "I am hopeful and remain optimistic that criminal justice reform will be different, and I think based on the actions that we've seen from some members of Congress, including Senator Lee that I just mentioned and Senator Paul that we talked about earlier, that there actually is a genuine interest in trying to make progress on criminal justice reform." If Obama is thinking about a broad amnesty affecting potentially tens of thousands of people in U.S. prisons, Earnest didn't let on, although he didn't put the kibosh on the notion either. Obama, in letters to the 46 inmates, wrote that their actions would affect the potential of others to get the same relief. How they act — and others already released — could set the stage for more clemency before the president leaves office in January 2017. Pardons are typically one of the last things presidents do because they don't need approval from anyone. We'll hear from Obama on criminal justice Tuesday at the NAACP Convention in Philadelphia. He'll then visit a prison in Oklahoma Thursday, the first such visit by a president to a prison. Earnest said there would be additional security precautions taken for the president, but the White House is confident Obama will be safe. That visit will include meeting some of the prisoners, Earnest said. Related: Obama's Going to Prison See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.