Column: On criminal justice reform, it's time for a second step
WASHINGTON — Josephine Ledesma was a first-time nonviolent drug offender who never even used or sold drugs but still received a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison during the 1990s. She served more than 24 years in federal prison before receiving clemency from President Barack Obama in 2016. She now has a good job and is devoted to, as she says in her own words, “making up for all the time my children did not get to spend with me by being the best grandmother in the world.”
Josephine's story is not unique. Our criminal justice system is broken. Today we know that our country has more than 20% of the world's incarcerated people, even though we have less than 5% of the world's population. And we know racial disparities at every level of our system have removed millions of people of color from our society, destroying families and communities for generations.
Thanks to the work of countless reform advocates, we have finally started to acknowledge that there is racism in our criminal justice system and that we need to take action to fight it. But the next president will have to do more than just talk about these issues. She will have to take action.
Our criminal justice system cannot lose sight of the principles of fairness and compassion — for victims, yes, but also for offenders. Our Founding Fathers understood this point when they gave the president the power to grant clemency, such as the one Obama granted Josephine.
As president, I would create a clemency advisory board as well as a position in the White House — outside of the Department of Justice — that advises the president from a criminal justice reform perspective.
Law professors such as Rachel E. Barkow from New York University and Mark Osler from the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota have described what a better clemency system could look like. Currently, the Department of Justice includes an Office of the Pardon Attorney, tasked with investigating and reviewing all requests for clemency for federal offenses and ultimately preparing a recommendation for the president. Although the voices of our prosecutors and law enforcement officials are important and should continue to advise the president, there are additional voices that a president needs to hear.
A diverse, bipartisan clemency advisory board — one that includes victim advocates as well as prison and sentencing reform advocates — could look at this from a different perspective. And a criminal justice reform advocate in the White House will ensure that someone is advising the president on criminal justice reform. That's why I'm committed to making these important changes during the first month of my presidency, should I be elected.
But we cannot solve the many problems associated with mass incarceration through better and smarter use of the presidential pardon alone. Last year, we in Congress passed the First Step Act, which changed the overly harsh sentencing laws on nonviolent drug offenders and reformed our federal prisons. But now it's time for the Second Step Act.
The reforms in the First Step Act only apply to those held in the federal system. The new law doesn't help the nearly 90% of people incarcerated in state and local facilities.
One of my top priorities will be to create federal incentives so that states can restore some discretion from mandatory sentencing for nonviolent offenders and reform the unconscionable conditions in state prisons and local jails.
We have to do more to reduce inflexible mandatory minimums and add safety valves, building on the federal reforms we made last year. True criminal justice reform includes the cash bail system, expanding funding for public defenders and eliminating obstacles to re-entering and participating fully in society. That’s why we also need better educational and job training programs that can help people both before and after they are released.
I’m also working to change the dialogue on drug and alcohol treatment and mental health services. I did this in Minnesota as Hennepin County attorney, I’ve fought for expanded drug courts as a senator, and I’ll make this a priority as president.
But here’s one reform we can make immediately. Our system grants the president enormous power to seek justice, including clemency for people such as Josephine. There are still so many people like her. As Josephine said: “The hardest part is all of the people I left behind.”
The next president owes it to the people of this country to leave no one behind. Reforming the presidential pardon system through the creation of a clemency advisory board and the addition of a dedicated, criminal justice reform adviser to the White House would move us one step closer to an America that’s as good as its promise.