“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,” Mr. 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 Senators Kamala Harris of California, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, as well as former Representative 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.
Mr. 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 R. 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 Mr. 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,” Ms. Browne-Marshall said.