US President Barack Obama [official website] on Tuesday granted clemency [press release] to 111 non-violent criminal offenders, including 35 federal offenders serving life sentences. These new grants of clemency bring Obama's total to 673, including 325 in the month of August alone. Mostly drug offenders, the commuted sentences are part of Obama's ongoing effort to reduce the size of the nation's prison population. At a news conference earlier this month, Obama explained [press release] the sentence excusals: "I thought it was very important for us to send a clear message that we believe in the principles behind criminal justice reform."
How can it be that a lifelong civil rights lawyer such as myself would take this position? Because the death penalty cannot be separated from the issue of racial discrimination, especially in the South. The history of slavery and lynching left deep scars in the black community, and the current death penalty does not fare much better. More than 8 in 10 of the executions carried out since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 have occurred in the South. Blacks make up more than one-third of the 1,170 defendants executed in the region, with most convicted of murdering a white victim.