Kenneth P. Vogel and Annie Karni, New York Times, May 17, 2021
Administration officials have quietly begun evaluating clemency requests and have signaled to activists that President Biden could begin issuing pardons or commutations by the midpoint of his term.
The effort, which is being overseen by the White House Counsel’s Office and the Justice Department, is an implicit rebuke of President Donald J. Trump’s approach to clemency, which mostly bypassed the Justice Department and relied on an ad hoc network of friends and allies, resulting in a wave of late pardons and commutations to people with wealth or connections.
Mr. Biden’s team, by contrast, has signaled in discussions with outside groups that it is establishing a more deliberate, systemic process geared toward identifying entire classes of people who deserve mercy. The approach could allow the president to make good on his campaign promise to weave issues of racial equity and justice throughout his government.
Mr. Biden’s approach to his pardon powers is part of a broader long-term shift in his criminal justice policies. During his 35 years in the Senate, he helped fashion a string of bills that enacted harsh sentences for drug crimes and laid the groundwork for the mass incarceration that disproportionately affected Black communities.
On the campaign trail, Mr. Biden apologized for portions of one of the more aggressive tough-on-crime measures he championed, the 1994 crime bill. And as president, he has surrounded himself with supporters of overhauling the system.
“We asked them not to wait to the end of a term to execute pardon and commutation power for photo ops, and they definitely assured us that is not this administration’s plan,” said DeAnna Hoskins, the president of the criminal justice group JustLeadershipUSA, who participated in a Zoom session for former prisoners with White House officials last month.
Participants in the Zoom session and other meetings with the White House have come away with the impression that Mr. Biden intends to use clemency grants — which are among the most unchecked and profound powers at a president’s disposal — to address systemic issues in the criminal justice system.
The Biden campaign hinted at such an approach in its criminal justice platform, which indicated that he intended to use clemency “broadly” to “secure the release of individuals facing unduly long sentences for certain nonviolent and drug crimes.”
Among those supporting the administration’s efforts is Susan E. Rice, who leads Mr. Biden’s Domestic Policy Council. She is focused on instilling racial equity in all of the administration’s initiatives and has recruited a team with deep roots in civil rights and justice.
As a member of the House and the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Cedric Richmond championed efforts to decrease sentences and incarceration rates. Ms. Rice and Mr. Richmond, who leads the White House’s Office of Public Engagement, have participated in sessions with criminal justice activists, as has Chiraag Bains, a special assistant to Mr. Biden for criminal justice and gun policy who worked in the Justice Department’s civil rights division under the Obama administration.
In outreach sessions to criminal justice activists, White House officials have collected recommendations on categories of clemencies that should be prioritized. The sessions have included groups with strong connections in the Black community and those that aggressively opposed Mr. Trump, including the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as the libertarian Cato Institute and the Prison Fellowship, which counts evangelical conservatives among its staff and supporters.
Kate Trammell, an official with the Prison Fellowship, said in a statement that during a call with White House officials in March, she recommended that the administration prioritize clemency reviews for people “serving disproportional sentences as a result of the continued disparity in sentencing for federal crack and powder cocaine crimes.”
The A.C.L.U. highlighted those prisoners and others in an online and newspaper advertising campaign during Mr. Biden’s inauguration week. It urged him to grant clemency to 25,000 people in federal prison, including “the elderly, the sick, those swept up in the war on drugs and people locked up because of racist policies of the past that have since been changed.”
Other suggestions for clemency priorities have included people convicted of crimes — including murder — seen as related to their civil rights activism, such as people who were active in the Black Panther Party.
Mr. Richmond has indicated that the White House counsel would review the suggestions, according to the person familiar with the White House’s efforts.
Another activist on the call, Brittany White of the group Live Free, argued that any political blowback from granting clemency could be offset by mobilizing voters hurt by mass incarceration.
“Black voters especially feel a sense of loyalty and affection, I believe, for those who uphold our values,” said Ms. White, whose group worked to drive up turnout among formerly incarcerated people in the Georgia Senate runoff elections in January.