Screenshot of video; photo of Lennys Bermudez (FACEBOOK)

Van Jones, #Cut50 Petition Obama to Grant More Clemencies in Final Days of Presidency

With a change in administration, it’s uncertain if criminal justice reform will continue.

By Sheryl Estrada

President Barack Obama, the first president to visit a federal prison and discuss criminal justice reform, created a clemency initiative to cut short long mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders imposed during the “war on drugs.”

President Barack Obama speaks during his visit to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution outside Oklahoma City July 16, 2015. He is the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. REUTERS

As of November 4, Obama has now commuted the sentences of 944 individuals, including 324 life sentences a record number of clemencies.

The clemency initiative, which began in 2014, gives a second chance to non-violent, low-level offenders who have served at least 10 years of their federal sentence and demonstrated good behavior.But still thousands who have petitioned for clemency have not yet received it.

CNN contributor Van Jones is the president of Dreams Corps and co-founder of #cut50, a bipartisan effort to cut the U.S. prison population in half. #cut50 began the initiative #ClemencyNow, which is hosting a two-day event in Washington, D.C., “Hope for the Holidays,” urging Obama to grant more clemencies.

Related Story: CNN’s Van Jones: ‘White-lash’ Against a Changing U.S. Led to Trump’s Win

“We are here in D.C. with over 75 family members from across the country who have loved ones with pending clemency petitions,” #ClemencyNOW Campaign Director Brittany Byrd told DiversityInc. “What President Obama has done is amazing and should be applauded, but there are many, many more men and women who are truly deserving of clemency and for them time is running out.”

Van Jones

Tuesday at 11 a.m. the organization will host a press conference at the U.S. Department of Justice, where petitions for clemency will be delivered, and a series of short talks and panel discussions featuring Jones and former Attorney General Eric Holder will take place.

Legislation such as The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, a sprawling criminal justice bill that received bipartisan support, created mandatory minimum sentences that disproportionately affected African Americans and Latinos. It has contributed to the United States comprising approximately 25 percent of the world’s prison population despite representing about 5 percent of the world’s total population.

Annie Fray’s youngest son Trenton Copeland, 33, was sentenced to life in prison for a cocaine offense. Being found guilty of conspiring to distribute and possess more than five kilograms of cocaine, combined with prior drug offenses, carried a mandatory life sentence. Fray is participating in “Hope for the Holidays” in hopes her son Copeland will receive clemency.

“You [can] tell through [prison] visitations there is a higher number of African Americans who are incarcerated,” she told DiversityInc.

“I know they made bad decisions and have to pay the consequences,” she said.

But in regards to her son, “I don’t believe Trenton deserves a life sentence.”

The push for clemencies is in the shadow of the next administration where it is uncertain if criminal justice reform will remain a priority.

“The criminal justice system and clemency isn’t just an Obama issue,” Byrd said. “We hope it’s really incumbent on the next administration to continue this legacy.”

Will Trump’s Administration Continue Criminal Justice Reform

On the campaign trail, President-elect Trump called himself the “law and order” candidate who would crack down on violent crime. But, except for talking about its impact on national security and immigration, Trump did not get very specific about criminal justice policy.

In a Facebook live video last week, Jones said there could perhaps be opportunities to continue criminal justice reform legislation under a Trump administration. He said Republicans like Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, “who’s very close to [Trump],” and others, including former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and House Speaker Paul Ryan, have been talking about criminal justice reform. So, “there are some opportunities there.”

However, Jones added, “There are certain villains like Sen. Tom Cotton who might get in the way in the Senate.”

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has been an opponent of criminal justice reform. According to Mother Jones, Trump is considering a cabinet position for Cotton.

“I think that he is a very talented guy,” Trump said. “He’s also a very popular, he’s a very popular person. So [he is] high on the list for something at least. That I can tell you.”

Related Story: GOP Senator: U.S. Has an ‘Under-Incarceration Problem’

In May, Cotton took a stand against the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, a bipartisan legislation that would reduce mandatory minimums for drug offenses and apply many of these changes retroactively, impacting thousands of individuals. He said he believes the U.S. has an “under-incarceration problem.”

In a speech at the Hudson Institute, a conservative nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C., Cotton said that the arguments of the bill’s advocates are “baseless.”

“The bill’s advocates contend that we’re locking up too many offenders for too long for too little, we can’t afford it anyway, and we should show more empathy toward those caught up in the criminal-justice system. These arguments, put simply, are baseless.”

The bipartisan legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate on October 1, 2015. The bill was unable to make it to the Senate floor. But on the House side, “advocates still hope that Paul Ryan will keep his promise and bring the House version of the bill to the floor,” according to The Hill.

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