Obama’s Many Commutations Overlooked Women Inmates, Say Advocates

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On President Obama’s last day in office, he granted another 330 commutations to nonviolent drug offenders, bringing his total number of clemencies to 1,715—more than the last 12 presidents combined.

But clemency advocates argue that Obama’s clemency policy consistently overlooked one group: women.

Of the 1,715 individuals who received commuted sentences under Obama, fewer than 100 were women.

“We’re upset he didn’t increase the number of women prisoners, most of whom have perfect prison records and families,” said Amy Povah, founder and director of the non-profit CAN-DO Foundation (Clemency for All Non-Violent Drug Offenders).

“The fact that the number of women released corresponds to the ratio of men incarcerated to women incarcerated is not a fair justification for not releasing more women,” Povah told HIGH TIMES. “Even though women make up 6.7 percent of the federal prison population, many are first-time offenders who are serving long sentences for drug offenses, which is what Obama’s clemency program is supposed to be dealing with and who were instructed to apply for clemency.”

Povah was referring to the 2014 Clemency Initiative, in which nonviolent federal inmates were invited to apply to have their sentences commuted. The goal of the program was to offer relief to some individuals who were serving excessively long drug sentences as a result of federal mandatory minimum laws enacted in the 1980s and 1990s as part of the failed War on Drugs.

Povah explained to HIGH TIMES that women are more likely than men to be serving long sentences because of drugs that a spouse or male partner was selling or possessed.

“And because of the broad application of the conspiracy law, the converse is not true,” Povah said. “Very few men end up with long sentences based on illegal activity of their partners or girlfriends.”

About 98 percent of Obama’s commutations were for prisoners convicted on drug offenses and many of them, more than 60 percent, were charged under conspiracy laws.

“So many women, like myself, went to prison because of activity that my significant other was involved in,” Povah said. “The conspiracy law is to blame for that.”

Povah was released from prison after nine years, having been granted clemency under President Bill Clinton.

Activist groups like the American Civil Liberties Union argue that conspiracy laws enabled the indictment of low-level participants to be unjustly charged with more serious crimes.

Between 1980 and 2014, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 700 percent, while the number of men increased by 419 percent. This is the result of more expansive law enforcement efforts, stiffer drug sentencing laws and post-conviction barriers to reentry that uniquely affect women.

“We’re looking at women going into prison two-to-one with regard to the ratio,” said Povah. “While we celebrate those who were commuted under President Obama, it is heartbreaking to see so many women still imprisoned and to witness the collateral damage their absence is having on their children and families.”

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