Cory Booker

Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker speaks during the Iowa Democratic Party’s Hall of Fame Celebration in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Booker says, if elected, he plans to pursue clemency for the thousands of prisoners incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes.

— (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey on Thursday announced a plan to offer clemency to more than 17,000 inmates serving time for nonviolent drug-related offenses on the first day of his presidency, an expansive use of executive power that would be the broadest clemency initiative since the Civil War.

The plan, which draws heavily on previous legislation he has introduced and passed as a senator, takes pains to address the vast racial inequalities wrought by the war on drugs. It focuses on those serving sentences for marijuana-related offenses, as well as those with disparate sentences because of old distinctions between crack and powder cocaine.

It also addresses inmates whose sentences would have been reduced had the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Booker and signed by President Donald Trump late last year, been applied retroactively.

The announcement comes a day after Booker made a rare direct criticism of a fellow Democratic candidate for president, calling on former Vice President Joe Biden to apologize for his comments recalling working with segregationist senators.

His campaign noted that Booker’s clemency plan stood “in contrast to policies put forward in our recent history, including in the ’94 crime bill,” a bill that Biden supported when he was in the Senate and that many Democrats have since denounced, saying it contributed to mass incarceration.

Booker’s proposal furthers his campaign’s intense focus on criminal justice reform with less than a week to go before the first the first Democratic debate of the 2020 presidential race, as candidates have been frenetically introducing new plans and policies to help them stand out in the two-night, 20-candidate showdown.

Booker, the former mayor of Newark and a national figure for nearly two decades, has been stuck polling around 2% in most surveys, both at the national level and in some key early states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

At the center of Booker’s plan would be a directive to multiple federal agencies to identify inmates who fit the parameters of the executive order and immediately begin the clemency process.

It would require no action on the part of the inmate, according to the Booker campaign, but would not result in anyone’s immediate release; there would be a review process held by the newly created Executive Clemency Panel, a bipartisan group that would exist outside the Department of Justice but within the executive branch.

“The War on Drugs has been a war on people, tearing families apart, ruining lives, and disproportionately affecting people of color and low-income individuals — all without making us safer,” Booker said in a statement. “Granting clemency won’t repair all the damage that has been done by the War on Drugs and our broken criminal justice system, but it will help our country confront this injustice and begin to heal.”

Many presidential candidates have come out in favor of legalizing marijuana, and some, like Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, as well as former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, are in favor of expunging convictions on nonviolent drug charges. But none have addressed the issue through a clemency proposal.

Booker’s executive order would also direct the Executive Clemency Panel to look for more options for granting clemency, including a “special presumption for release” for those who are older than 50 and have served extended sentences.

The Booker campaign cited numerous examples of presidents issuing large clemency initiatives as evidence of precedent for such an action: President Gerald Ford, for instance, offered conditional amnesty in 1974 to those who evaded the draft during the Vietnam War, though each person was required to work a public-service job for two years.

The campaign estimated that there would be very little upfront cost for the plan, and that most of the staffing of the panel could be provided by reassigning federal employees. They also noted that the United States spends more than $30,000 a year to incarcerate an individual in federal prison, and said that commuting sentences would actually result in savings.

Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, noted that Booker’s proposal was similar to one enacted by President Barack Obama in 2014, though on a much grander scale and much earlier in his potential tenure.

“Clemencies and the pardon power are usually used at the end of a president’s term, not the beginning, so that makes itself a powerful statement and lends itself to a level of accountability if he does not do it,” Browne-Marshall said.

She added that it would be imperative for Booker to keep the clemency review process as an individualized system, to prevent any potential problematic cases from tarnishing the program.

“One bad apple can then undermine its system and its credibility,” she said.

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