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Pardoning Turkeys, Not People? Obama Urged to Reverse Lowest Clemency Rate of Modern Presidency

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As President Obama continued a recent tradition of granting a presidential pardon to a pair of turkeys just ahead of Thanksgiving, critics pointed out that he has shown less mercy toward human beings deserving of clemency. Despite the administration’s recent talk of reforming the criminal justice system, Obama has granted the fewest pardons of any modern president. During his presidency, Obama has pardoned 10 turkeys, while he has pardoned or commuted the sentences of only 39 people. According to an analysis last year by ProPublica, which studied applications for pardons processed by the Justice Department, Obama has granted clemency to just 2 percent of applicants. Of the 39 pardons Obama has granted, just 11 have been for people convicted of drug crimes. We are joined by Anthony Papa, an artist, writer and noted advocate against the war on drugs, who was himself imprisoned for many years until he was granted executive clemency. Papa is co-founder of the Mothers of the New York Disappeared and is the author of “15 to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As President Obama continued a recent tradition of granting a presidential pardon to the holiday bird just ahead of Thanksgiving, critics pointed out he has shown less mercy towards prisoners deserving clemency. During his presidency, Obama has pardoned 10 turkeys, while he’s pardoned or commuted the sentences of only 39 people, the fewest pardons of any modern president. The turkeys, Caramel and Popcorn, were granted reprieve at a ceremony at the White House on Wednesday.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now, before these turkeys get away, with the power vested in me, I want to grant Popcorn a full reprieve. Come on. I want to—Popcorn, you have a full reprieve from cranberry sauce and stuffing. We wish you well. And we’re going to give Caramel a break, as well. All right?

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama has pardoned two birds each Thanksgiving for the past five years. In both 2009 and 2012, he pardoned more turkeys than people. Overall, Obama has granted clemency to just 39 people. At the same point in his presidency, Ronald Reagan had pardoned 313 people. Harry Truman pardoned 1,537 people. According to an analysis last year by ProPublica, which studied applications for pardons processed by the Justice Department, Obama has granted clemency to just 2 percent of applicants.

To talk more about this, we’re joined by Anthony Papa, artist, writer, noted advocate against the war on drugs. He served 12 years in prison for a first-time nonviolent drug offense. He was freed only after being granted executive clemency by then-New York Governor George Pataki. Tony Papa is co-founder of the Mothers of the New York Disappeared and works as the media manager at the Drug Policy Alliance. He’s also author of 15 to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom , and he just published a Huffington Post_ piece headlined, “President Obama, Pardon Both the Turkey and Drug War Prisoners for the Holidays.”

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Tony. It’s great to have you back. First, talk about your own story very briefly, if you would.

ANTHONY PAPA: Well, I was a first-time nonviolent drug offender, that basically in 1985 I made the biggest mistake of my life. I brought an envelope up from the Bronx to Mount Vernon for $500. It was an envelope containing four ounces of cocaine. I walked into a police sting operation. I did everything I could do wrong, and eventually I was sentenced to 15 years to life under the Rockefeller drug laws of New York state, went to prison, was lost, didn’t know what to do, discovered my talent as an artist as I transcended the negativity of imprisonment, and basically painted a self-portrait in 1988. One night I was sitting in my cell, picked up a mirror; I looked in the mirror, I saw an individual who’s going to spend the most productive years of his life in a cage; painted the self-portrait, and it appeared at the Whitney Museum of American Art about seven years later. And I was granted—I got a lot of publicity on my case and was granted executive clemency by Governor George Pataki. I came out, wanted to do something about those that I left behind, so I started a group, co-founded a group, Mothers of the New York Disappeared, became a leading activist in New York state to fight the draconian Rockefeller drug laws. Basically, the laws had a couple of revisions, and then in, recently, 2009, Governor Paterson stepped up to the plate and reformed the Rockefeller drug laws in a historic way.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain the whole concept of mandatory minimums, which the Rockefeller drug laws were based on.

ANTHONY PAPA: Right, mandatory minimums is, you take away the discretion of the judges to look at the totality of facts. So, basically, the judge in my case didn’t want to sentence me to 15 years to life, but he had to because of mandatory minimum sentencing, which dictates that he had to do it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about your piece that you wrote for The Huffington Post, “President Obama, Pardon Both the Turkey and Drug War Prisoners for the Holidays.”

ANTHONY PAPA: That piece—every year at about this time, I always write a letter, a request to the sitting governor of New York state, which is Andrew Cuomo now. And in the request, I ask if they can use their clemency powers to address the issue of people who were sentenced to draconian sentences under mandatory minimum sentencing that are stuck in prison. They have no judicial relief left but to—the only way out to get their freedom is for the governor to grant them executive clemency. And in the case of federal prisoners, right now, Obama, with his administration, who recently spoke out about mandatory minimum sentencing through Attorney General Holder a couple of months ago, called for changing these mandatory minimum sentencing laws because the system became broken because of it. I mean, 2.3 million Americans locked up, 500,000 because of the drug war, in the federal system over 100,000, so that there’s got to be somebody that’s eligible for executive clemency. I mean, look, if you could give a turkey a second chance, why can’t you give a nonviolent drug offender a second chance?

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to that speech of Eric Holder, the attorney general, unveiling this major policy shift to help certain low-level drug offenders avoid harsh mandatory minimum prison sentences. This was an address to the American Bar Association. He announced a review of the racial sentencing disparities.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: Today a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems rather than alleviate them. It’s clear, as we come together today, that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no truly good law enforcement reason.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Eric Holder. Anthony Papa, your response?

ANTHONY PAPA: Well, look, I think I congratulate Eric Holder and the Obama administration, and these are words. And I don’t know how they’re going to affect people who are sentenced under the draconian drug law sentencing and who are stuck in prison. I am hoping that he comes through and in some way these mandatory minimum sentencings would be revised and people would get some relief. My whole thing is, I would ask President Obama, why not help those prisoners? In 2010, he signed into legislation new revised crack cocaine sentencing, where the 100-and-one ratio went away and 18-and-one came into place, and it affected people. But there’s about 5,000 prisoners who that law didn’t affect, because it wasn’t applied retroactively. So I would say, with a swipe of a pen, you could save these 5,000 people who are stuck in prison under old crack cocaine laws, which, if they were made retroactive, they would be free anyway.

AMY GOODMAN: So let me ask you about the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, which found more than 3,200 people nationwide serving terms, life terms without parole for nonviolent offenses, 80 percent of them behind bars for drug-related offenses—65 percent African-American, 18 percent white, 16 percent Latino—evidence of what the ACLU calls “extreme racial disparities.” This is a clip from a video that features family members of some of the more than 600 prisoners it profiles.

SARLOWER SURRY: Everything he did was to hurt himself, not others. And it went from—from one-year sentence to two-year sentence to natural life.

CASHAWNA TILMAN: My dad will never get out for something so little? Natural life.

LORETTA LUMAR: For stealing a $150 jacket. And that $150 jacket got him life in prison.

SARLOWER SURRY: Here in Louisiana, they use that habitual offender law: Three strikes, you automatically get natural life.

CATHERINE MATTHEWS: It’s like giving him a death sentence, because this is no life—no life for a man with his children or his parents or anybody else, once they’re in there.

BURL CAIN: Judge should have the discretion not to give a life sentence. I mean, that’s extreme. You tell that to anybody, they’ll say, “Ah, nah-uh, that’s a little bit too much.” That almost gets to be the point that that’s not what the forefathers envisioned, even with the Constitution. That’s extreme. That’s cruel and unusual punishment, to me.

CASHAWNA TILMAN: He’s a good person, my dad. I mean, he’s always—like I said, he’s always been there for me and my sister and brother. He’s always done his best, until he started abusing the drugs.

CATHERINE MATTHEWS: And a lot of times with Patrick, with the drugs, it came down to not being able to find work.

SARLOWER SURRY: Life sentence is no way to deal with a drug addiction.

EISIBE SNEED: My son wasn’t a menace to society.

DELOICE LEWIS: He would give his shirt off his back.

CATHERINE MATTHEWS: And being so tenderhearted in a place like that, it just doesn’t fit. It’s changed him that way, because I notice he is getting a little colder. I find that he’s not believing and he’s not keeping his faith as much. He’s not—like, he’s like, “I’m about ready to give up on this.”

WILLIE COMBS: Oh, it’s been hard. I go down there and see him. I can’t hardly stand to leave him, but I know I have to go. It be hard. It be hard.

CATHERINE MATTHEWS: To tell him what I ate for Thanksgiving, and he couldn’t eat it, you know, it’s hard. It’s little things like that.

DELOICE LEWIS: And my birthday coming up, and those are days I break.

BURL CAIN: But if this person can go back and be a productive citizen and not commit crimes again, these nonviolent crimes, then why are we keeping him here, spending all this money? Because maybe I’ve done my job, so he should have a parole hearing.

SARLOWER SURRY: There’s too many families that’s suffering out here.

LORETTA LUMAR: Give him a second chance. He’s 54 years old now.

WILLIE COMBS: I’m looking for things to change.

CATHERINE MATTHEWS: Because these boys are just getting wasted away in these prisons for no reason.

AMY GOODMAN: That is an ACLU video of people talking about their loved ones in prison. Yesterday, The Washington Post had an editorial, “Obama Neglects His Power to Pardon.” “At least Mr. Obama is aware [that] he possesses the power of clemency. Unpardonably, though,” The Washington Post writes, “with the exception of the silly Thanksgiving ritual in which he spares a turkey by executive order, he virtually never discusses this prerogative, and [he] rarely uses it.” They end this first paragraph by saying, “In fact, no modern president comes close to Mr. Obama in meting out mercy so rarely and so stingily.” And they go on, Anthony Papa, to cite your piece in The Huffington Post, saying, “As Huffington Post noted, so far in his presidency Mr. Obama has pardoned about the same number of drug offenders (11) as turkeys (10).”

ANTHONY PAPA: Right. I guess he likes turkeys better than drug offenders. You know, if I had to tell you—send a message to President Obama, I would tell him that, you know, because of my personal experience, and I received executive clemency, it saved my life. It saves the lives of many who have fallen through the cracks of the criminal justice system, and it wrongs the rights of laws that are very draconian in nature. And I think the powers of clemency should be exercised more. Look, politicians don’t get political points from giving clemencies or pardons, but if you look at it at a humanistic view, where compassion is used by these individuals, people make mistakes in their lives, and they need to—and hopefully they could change their lives while inside, but they get stuck because of these draconian mandatory minimum sentencing laws. So hopefully President Obama will exercise his pardon powers, commutation powers more, and also governors. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, since he’s been in office, he hasn’t given one clemency or pardon. So, even Andrew Cuomo is afraid to use the pardon power, I guess because there’s no real way to score politically, and it only could be a negative aspect, looking at it.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you were just recently on a panel at the New School—


AMY GOODMAN: —with governors, judges.

ANTHONY PAPA: Right, in a—it was with former governors, and they—Governor Eldridge, Senator Kerry, and they all talked about this issue, that these people who are—they’re not using their pardon powers enough. There’s actually a group of ex-governors now, with Jason Flom and his people, put together this panel of ex-governors that are trying to influence sitting governors to use the issue of pardons and their powers of commutation more.

AMY GOODMAN: For those who are interested, the way The Washington Post ends is citing exactly what President Obama’s power is, that he “can act in selected cases on his own, empowered by Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution, which permits him the ability 'to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States.'” They said, “That virtually unrestricted power has been used too sparingly for many years.” In your case, we’ll end, Anthony, by you talking about how in prison you found art as your form of liberation, that ultimately gained you the attention that got you out of jail.

ANTHONY PAPA: Right. I transcended the negativity of imprisonment, that the situation where I discovered my talent as an artist, I found meaning in my life. There are many individuals in prison under these draconian drug laws, under mandatory minimum sentencing, who are stuck there, and they have no other relief than to ask those who are sitting in power, these politicians who have the power to commute, the power to give pardons and executive clemency, and I’m asking them to look at this issue and please help these people regain their freedom. They deserve to come home to their families.

AMY GOODMAN: Anthony Papa, I want to thank you being with us, artist, writer, noted advocate against the war on drugs, co-founder of Mothers of the New York Disappeared, works at Drug Policy Alliance, author of the book 15 to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom . We’ll link to your article at The Huffington Post headlined “President Obama, Pardon Both the Turkey and Drug War Prisoners for the Holidays.”

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, what happened in over 1,500 box stores, particularly Wal-Mart stores, the protests that took place over Thanksgiving. Stay with us.

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