Obama denies clemency to 2,229 federal prisoners

Longest serving marijuana offender rejected

Pot, LSD cases getting ignored

President Obama yesterday rejected a record 2,229 clemency requests, including those from some non-violent marijuana offenders who clearly have been in prison too long.

The Justice Department released only names of those denied clemency, not the reasons for rejection, so it’s unclear why the president ignored some of the most unjust sentences. Obama has given 562 sentence commutations since taking office. He also has rejected 10,968 clemency requests during that time.

The likely reason for denying clemency to many of the most unjustly sentenced prisoners is a six-part clemency test that Obama established in 2014. These self-imposed regulations create a complex matrix technical sentencing variable, none related to the arbitrariness or injustice of a sentence.

Obama’s criteria effectively says he will reduce old sentences to what they would be if given today. This heavily weights commutation grants to crack and meth offenders, a good thing because those two drugs were singled out for sentences based on race and class rather than the drug itself. But it largely excludes marijuana and LSD offenders.

President Obama hugs a clemency recipient at White House on March 30, 2016.

President Obama hugs a clemency recipient at White House on March 30, 2016.

Obama’s technocratic approach has largely stripped the process of moral judgments based on fairness, humanity and common sense. But formulas aren’t enough. Mercy is a judgment call. (See my Washington Post article, “Mr. President, You’re doing clemency wrong. It’s not about the law, it’s about mercy.”)

The president’s rules have been particularly unfair to non-violent marijuana and LSD offenders. Two denials yesterday were especially heartbreaking. read more…

Larry Yarbrough, Oklahoma #3 most deserving clemency candidate, denied freedom

Innocent man: Larry Yarbrough

Innocent man: Larry Yarbrough

Larry Yarbrough, 66, an innocent man serving a life sentence in Oklahoma for a minor, non-violent drug offense, was denied parole this week by the state’s Pardon and Parole Board.

In March, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin had commuted his sentence from life without parole to life with parole. Previous parole boards had recommended his freedom and governors rejected it. This time, the governor made it possible but a newly constituted, prosecutor-friendly parole board rejected it.

This is the twisted reality of Oklahoma’s justice system, unable and unwilling to correct a mistake. read more…

Drug lifer Luis Rivera released Tuesday under new “Holloway doctrine”

Luis Anthony Rivera, 59, a wonderful man doing life without parole for cocaine since 1983, was released suddenly Tuesday night under the groundbreaking “Holloway doctrine” that permits reducing sentences that are unduly harsh yet technically correct.

Attorney Sam S. Sheldon

Attorney Sam S. Sheldon

Sam S. Sheldon, an attorney and former federal prosecutor, is the tour de force behind this important legal innovation, which could play a huge role in winning early releases for those serving multi-decade federal sentences.

His motion to win Luis’ freedom describes the Holloway doctrine this way: read more…

The way we were: U.S. imprisonment, 1880-present

Download historical incarceration data


The aberration of today’s criminal justice policies is visually startling.

Our invisible neighbors

In 2014, the U.S. locked up 1 of every 135 residents and one of every 106 adults. These numbers are down slightly from the peak in 2007 but show that the era of mass imprisonment in the United States continues and that highly publicized criminal justice reforms had had negligible effect.

Drug prohibition is the fuel of mass imprisonment. The government’s official drug use survey found nearly 50 million people used drugs illegally in 2014, including 58% of those ages 18-25, the target population for imprisonment. Adjustments in procedures and sentence lengths cannot offset the ability of law enforcement to harvest an effectively unlimited supply of inmates that results from criminalizing an ordinary behavior.

The truth is, recreational drug use is not deviant. It is normal. The number of people who use illegal drugs is almost exactly the same number of 50 million sexual couplings that occur each year, according to a Centers for Disease Control National Health Report. (50 million men + 50 million women = 50 million sexual couplers since it takes two to tango.)

The U.S. has nine million gay residents, according to the most recent estimate. Imagine if the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies employing 1.1 million were dedicated — indeed, required — to arrest every gay person (and gay bar owner) or unmarried heterosexual fornicator that police can  find through investigation, informants or stumbling across in a city parked or parked car.

 “Reforming” drug laws is no more possible than reforming laws against sex or using psychological treatment to “cure” homosexuality. All behavior has risk, from taking drugs to having sex to playing football to driving a car. Prohibition of an ordinary activity cannot work, but it can create enormous societal and economic distortions, cause extraordinary amounts of injustice and provide a dressed-up reason to arrest and imprison millions of unpopular people, not surprisingly racial minorities and the poor generally.

The nearly 50 million illicit drug users per year are, of course, only a fraction of the nation’s recreational drug users. About 150 million Americans consumed the stimulant coffee every day in 2013 and more than 200 million per year. Consumers of this legal stimulant skew affluent and white. Fewer than 10 people a year die from caffeine overdoses, mostly from caffeine pills, power and perhaps energy drinks. When diluted in water for coffee, caffeine overdoses are nearly impossible. However, heavy coffee drinking — 4 or more cups per day — was correlated with increased mortality, according to a large Mayo Clinic study.

Alcohol is the nation’s second most popular recreational drug, consumed by 140 million per month and 194 million sometime during in 2014. Every month, 61 million Americans “binge” on alcohol — defined as 5 or more drinks at once — and 16 million binge five times a month. Four of every five substance abuse problems in the United States involve alcohol, according to the government’s 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.



Whites use alcohol at higher rates than all other racial and ethnic groups, including blacks and American Indians.  In 2013, the past month use of alcohol varied this way:

  • Past month use. 57.7% of whites vs. 43.6% of blacks.
  • Binge alcohol use. 24.0% whites vs. 20.1% blacks.
  • Heavy alcohol use. 7.3% of whites vs. 4.5% of blacks. (Binging 5 or more times per month.)

Alcohol use also increased with income.

Put succinctly, the recreational drugs preferred by affluent whites are the only legal ones,

Coca tea, a popular South America beverage, has the same safety profile as coffee. No overdose deaths have been documented In concentrated form, the primary alkaloid in the beverages — cocaine and caffeine, respectively — have a similar risk and tolerance profile. Pure caffeine is legal in the United States and sold under brand names such as Vivarin and NoDoz. However, the use of concentrated caffeine is rare because consumers prefer and have access to the drug in diluted form. By contrast, diluted cocaine is not legal or easily available in the United States. The illicit market trades in compact concentrate.

Alcohol kills 88,000 people a year, reports the CDC. It is an a class of its own as humankind’s most dangerous recreational drug, and, even then,kills only one of every 22,000 users annually and about one in every 300 users over a lifetime.


 The country locked up about 1 in 500 residents from the end of alcohol Prohibition until President Nixon declared a war on drug users and sellers in 1971.

Before alcohol Prohibition, federal, state and local governments locked up about 1 in every 750 residents.

Drug Prohibition

After alcohol Prohibition, the imprisonment rate dropped, but it never returned to its pre-Prohibition level.

Also noteworthy: State prisons and local jails held more than 90% of the additional prisoners that resulted from the Prohibition era’s soaring prison population, notwithstanding the fact that Prohibition was the result of a a federal constitutional amendment.

The alcohol Prohibition experience indicates that unwinding drug prohibition will certainly slash crime and the prison population, but it is unlikely the incarceration rate will return to traditional levels Alcohol Prohibition also shows that federal drug control policy is seen largely in local jails and state prisons.

How many is too many?

Federal, state and local governments kept 2,360,265 people behind bars in 2014. Another 4,708,100 were on parole or probation. In all, 2.82% of the the nation’s adult population of 250 million was under correctional control in 2014. More than 20 million adults are now felons or ex-felons, and more than 100 million offenders had criminal records in 2012.

As a measure of the extraordinary degree of over-imprisonment, the U.S. would have to release immediately:

  • 1.73 million prisoners to return the pre-drug war level of locking up about 1 of 500.
  • 1.57 million prisoners to return to the 1980 rate of locking up about 1 in 400.
  • 745,000 prisoners to return to the 1990 rate of locking up 1 in 200.
Incarceration rate

Academics commonly express imprisonment numbers in rates per per 100,000.

Reported this way, the country’s incarceration rate was 746 of every 100,000 residents in 2013 vs. 197 of every 100,000 residents in 1972 . The historic high was 818 prisoners per 100,000 population in 2007.

Download and share data

A full data set and sourcing can be downloaded here in Excel.

Here is a chart that starts at 1900.

imprisonment 1900-present chart


Obama commutes 46 drug sentences

President Obama shorted 46 non-violent drug sentences to a November 10, 2015 release date. The official list is here. An analysis of the race, gender, drug and sentence effect is here: “Mostly black, mostly crack.”

Jeffrey Toler

Jeffrey Toler

Details on each individual are in the story you’re reading.

Thirteen drug offenders (including Jeffrey Toler, pictured) were serving life without parole.

Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas‘s mom got her crack sentence reduced. Katrina Thomas, 42, will be freed in November, a year and a half early, after serving more than 15 years.

Demaryius visiting mom, Katrina, in prison.

Demaryius visiting mom in prison.

Also to be released: an 84-year-old black man given 45 years for crack…a 72-year-old black man given a life sentence for crack…and a 33-year-old black man sentenced to life for selling crack as a teenager.

Meet the 46 clemency recipients:   read more…

Donald B.W. Evans, good kid, U.C. Berkeley student, crack lifer

Crack + Black = Life

Donald Evans, Catholic elementary school graduation

Donald Evans, Catholic elementary school graduation

Update: Donald’s life sentence was reduced by a judge to 30 years. He will be released April 26, 2016. 

“Intelligent. Concerned. Loving. Family-oriented.”

That’s how Donald’s mom describes her son.

Is she right? The evidence shows she is.

Spend a few moments today meeting a fine man, Donald B.W. Evans, an intelligent 50-year-old with much to offer.

In 1990, the nation’s justice system froze this good man’s life into a racist stereotype: worthless young black male. Today, Donald is serving life without parole because he — and hundreds of others who look like him — sold crack cocaine. read more…

Mostly black, mostly crack

Obama’s commutations, by the numbers This round of presidential clemency grants was clearly aimed at racially discriminatory crack cocaine laws. The Clemency Report analyzed President Obama’s 46 clemency grants to drug offenders on July 13. What we found... read more

The 10 Most Outrageous Marijuana Prison Sentences

Update: Larry Duke was given “compassionate release” March 4, 2015. READ TOP 10 MARIJUANA LIST HERE By Beth Curtis Founder, lifeforpot.com   Unjust marijuana sentences have consumed the last 20 years of my life. When my brother told me that he faced... read more

How to make a change.org petition succeed for a loved one

  PLUS: The 12 most signed clemency petitions on change.org. The 5 keys to success. Petitions on change.org are a powerful  tool for people seeking clemency. The site currently has 2.2 million signatures supporting about 40 clemency petitions.  The Clemency... read more

Let’s send these people home

Alice Marie Johnson, 59, playwright and mentor

Alice is a talented writer and performer. She is currently writing a Christmas Play entitled, “It’s Time.” Alice is already renowned for her annual Easter play and has scripted and staged her own original sequels to “Sister Act” and “Madea Comes to Carswell,” which... read more

Lisa Lorentz, 44, working class kid, great parents

  Lisa grew up in a nice suburb outside of Dallas, Texas, in a loving, working-class home with two older brothers. Her parents have been married 50 years. Despite this upbringing, she had difficulty fitting in during her teenage years. She eventually dropped out... read more

“We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

More news from The Clemency Report

Barbara Scrivner’s life after presidential clemency

Barbara Scrivner was ranked No. 7 on The Clemency Report’s list of women most deserving clemency until  President Obama commuted her meth sentence in December. Barbara is the subject of this excellent Yahoo News story and this moving video on her challenges... read more

Obama 22 sentence commutations focus on crack + black

President Obama commuted the sentences of 22 drug prisoners Tuesday. The breakdown: Offense: 12 crack cocaine only; 3 powder cocaine only; 2 powder and crack; 2 meth, 1 meth-and heroin, 1 marijuana, 1 drugs unspecified Race: 16 African American, 6 white, including 5... read more

What freedom looks like

Prisoner Releases Start Under “Drugs Minus Two” David Mosby, 63, dressed in prison garb, enjoyed a mammoth, country-style breakfast with his family a few days ago at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. It was, literally, his first taste of freedom. David, an... read more

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Crack + Black = Life

New: The 10 Most Outrageous Crack Cocaine Sentences

robert shipp close crop

No. 1 Robert Shipp — life without parole for selling crack at age 20

Read list

The Top 25 Women Deserving Clemency

Pauline Blake cropped

No. 21 Pauline Blake

Please sign the petition today.

The petition now has 3,200+ signatures.

Meet the women

The U.S. should release one million from prison. 

Is it really that many -- one million?

The actual number is 1,606,535. Read why.

Why don't I hear about these people?

Prison silences. Imprisoned men and women are barely real to most free people. The Clemency Report aims to change that.


What can I do?

Tell the story of an affected loved one. Sign the petitions at change.org to show support for nonviolent drug offenders in prison.

Tell us about someone who deserves a shorter sentence.

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LSD lifer Bob Riley says thanks for caring about him.

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The 10 Historical Uses of Clemency

1) To correct hard cases.
2) To correct unduly severe sentences.
3) For mitigating circumstances.
4) For innocence or dubious guilt.
5) In death penalty cases.
6) For physical condition.
7) To restore civil rights.
8) To prevent deportations.
9) For political purposes or reasons of state.
10) To mitigate harm to children.

Human nature

"Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future." -- Oscar Wilde

What We Do

The Clemency Report seeks to identify imprisoned men and women -- and classes of imprisoned men and women -- worthy of executive clemency and freedom.

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