WASHINGTON — President Biden on Tuesday used his clemency powers for the first time to commute the sentences of 75 drug offenders and grant three pardons, including the first black Secret Service agent to work on a presidential detail, who had long argued that he had been unjustly condemned.
“I think I’m in shock, really,” said Abraham Bolden Sr., 87, who was convicted of trying to sell a copy of a Secret Service file, even after witnesses admitted to lying for the prosecution in his case. .
“I’ve waited so long,” said Mr. Bolden, who was in prison from 1966 to 1969. With Mr. Biden’s clemency order, his record is now cleared of that charge.
Top aides to Mr Biden have described the use of presidential power as part of a broader strategy to overhaul the criminal justice system by relying less on prison to punish non-violent drug users and using programs to help prevent formerly incarcerated people from returning to prison. On the same day Mr. Biden detailed the commutations, the Departments of Justice and Labor announced a $145 million plan to provide job training for federal inmates to help them find jobs after release.
The White House, in a statement, also said the Small Business Administration would release a rule in the coming days to make it easier for people with criminal records to apply for loans.
Mr Biden’s action comes amid growing dismay among some progressive groups who say the president has not focused enough on issues that resonate in communities of color, such as voting rights or legislation to overhaul the police.
With his approval rating low and a national agenda stalled in the face of a mere congressional majority, the president has responded to calls from his allies to step away from day-to-day negotiations with lawmakers and instead wield his executive power. They hope it will allow him to showcase his achievements and efforts to curb rising crime and inflation ahead of the midterm elections that Democrats look set to lose.
“Helping those who have served their sentence return to their families and become active members of their communities is one of the most effective ways to reduce recidivism and reduce crime,” Biden said in a statement. , adding that those granted clemency had “demonstrated a commitment to rehabilitation and strive every day to give back and contribute to their communities.
During a virtual roundtable on Tuesday with a group of formerly incarcerated, Dana Remus, the White House attorney, said Mr Biden would continue to consider clemency requests in the coming months. And a senior administration official speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of the announcement said voters should still expect Mr. Biden to act on other criminal justice issues, including an executive order to deal with the police.
The commutations also appeared to be an effort to compensate drug offenders subject to harsh sentences rooted in a series of bills that Mr. Biden helped push through during his 36 years in the Senate that laid the groundwork for a mass incarceration. He apologized during the election campaign for parts of one of the most aggressive measures he had championed, the 1994 Crime Bill.
Among those pardoned is Betty Jo Bogans, a 51-year-old woman convicted in 1998 of possession with intent to distribute crack after trying to help her boyfriend transport drugs. Neither her boyfriend nor her accomplice have been arrested. Ms Bogans, a single mother with no criminal record, was sentenced to seven years in prison. And Dexter Jackson of Georgia, 52, was pardoned after admitting to allowing his business to be used to sell marijuana, even though he did not sell the drug directly. It is now renovating homes in areas lacking affordable housing, according to the White House.
The 75 people who received commutations were non-violent drug offenders, many of whom were serving their sentences in house arrest due to the threat of the coronavirus pandemic, according to an administration official.
The Justice Department took a step to reduce reliance on federal prison in December by overturning a Trump-era legal opinion that said the Federal Bureau of Prisons should send inmates transferred home during the pandemic back to jail.
Nearly a third of those granted clemency would have received a lesser sentence had they been charged today.
Mr. Biden based his decisions on clemency petitions sent to the Justice Department, which then made recommendations to the president, according to the White House. Commutations reduce prison sentences but do not overturn convictions, while presidential pardons, which erase convictions, are generally granted only to those who have already served their sentence
Prior to his incarceration, Mr. Bolden said he first met President John F. Kennedy during one of the then president’s visits to Chicago.
An agent at the time, Mr Bolden said he was relegated to guarding a bathroom while his white peers were allowed to run the ballroom Mr Kennedy was visiting. But he said Mr. Kennedy quickly struck up a conversation with Mr. Bolden and quickly asked him to be the first black man on his presidential detail.
After he was indicted in 1964, Mr Bolden said the government was trying to frame him for his intention to testify about misconduct in the Secret Service. His first trial ended in a hung jury, but he was convicted at a second trial, even after witnesses admitted lying at the prosecution’s request.
Mr Bolden said progress in overhauling the criminal justice system in the United States was far from sufficient.
“We need to rebuild the criminal justice system where there is real justice, and it can be done,” Bolden said. “But we don’t have that at the moment.”
“The hand is always on the scales against the so-called disadvantaged people in America,” Mr. Bolden added. “The weight is still on us.”
The grants given by Mr. Biden on Tuesday were more than any of his five immediate predecessors at the same time in their presidencies, the White House said. Mr. Biden has received more than 300 pardon requests and more than 5,400 commutation requests so far during his presidency. More than 18,000 clemency applications are pending, according to the Department of Justice.
These backlogs grew under former President Donald J. Trump, who sometimes bypassed the usual clemency process that goes through the Justice Department, opting instead to rely on friends and allies for recommendations and using his pardons. and its commutations to benefit wealthy people and connections. , including some who have abused the power of elected offices.
Mr Bolden said he never gave up hope that he would be selected for a pardon, even though he had to wait more than 50 years for the appeal. He found solace in writing books about his experience.
“The incarceration I was involved in allowed me to do some soul-searching and learn some things I wanted to know all my life,” Mr Bolden said. “When I went to prison, I made it my main goal to do better and learn something that I could do for someone else.”
He said he wished he had been pardoned a year earlier so he could enjoy the news with his daughter and son, who died last year aged 63 and 62 from cancer.