WASHINGTON — President Biden is “exploring” the idea of granting clemency to people who are serving federal prison sentences for drug crimes, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday.
It would be a dramatic pivot for Biden, who authored some of the nation’s harshest drug laws in the 1980s and ’90s. In January, then-President Donald Trump freed two men serving life without parole for marijuana dealing under Biden’s 1994 crime law.
“We are working hard every day to reform our justice system in order to strengthen families, boost our economy and give people a chance at a better future,” Psaki said at her daily press briefing.
“The president is deeply committed to reducing incarceration and helping people successfully reenter society. And he said too many people are incarcerated — too many are black and brown — and he’s therefore exploring multiple avenues to provide relief for to certain nonviolent drug offenders, including through the use of his clemency power.”
Many federal inmates were temporarily released due to COVID-19, creating uncertainty about whether they will be forced to report back to prison in the coming months.
Psaki’s remark thrilled clemency advocates who have been pushing for Biden to commute prison sentences and issue pardons early in his term, which is uncommon for presidents.
Leading clemency advocate Amy Povah told The Post that “we are elated that President Biden has expressed an interest in using his executive clemency power with an emphasis upon drug cases.”
Povah, founder of the CAN-DO Foundation, which advocates clemency for non-violent drug offenders, was influential in lobbying the Trump White House on behalf of inmates.
“We have over 40 exceptional candidates on the CAND-DO website including many cannabis cases such as Diana Marquez, serving 30 years for pot for her first offense. She is on home confinement per the [COVID-19] CARES Act,” Povah said.
As a candidate, Biden said in 2019 that he wanted to release “everyone” in prison for marijuana, but Psaki has referred questions on whether he will do so to the Justice Department, saying it is “a legal question” despite the president’s nearly unchecked presidential pardon powers.
Povah, who herself received clemency from President Bill Clinton in 2000 after serving nine years of a 24-year sentence in an MDMA case, said she’s also urging clemency for Michelle West, who is serving life for a drug conspiracy, and Pedro Moreno, who is serving life in prison for marijuana dealing.
Advocates have had preliminary discussions with the Biden White House counsel’s office, but Biden has not yet issued any pardons or commutations.