Reducing incarceration rates in the US

In a welcome move, President Biden has ordered the release of thousands of prisoners who were being held just for marijuana possession or consumption.

Biden on Thursday pardoned all prior federal offenses of simple marijuana possession, a move that senior administration officials said would affect thousands of Americans charged with that crime.

As part of the announcement, Biden also encouraged governors to take similar steps to pardon state simple marijuana possession charges, a move that would potentially affect many thousands more Americans.

And the President will task the Department of Health and Human Services and Attorney General Merrick Garland to “expeditiously” review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law, the first step toward potentially easing a federal classification that currently places marijuana in the same category as heroin and LSD.

“No one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana,” Biden said in a video announcing his executive actions. “It’s legal in many states, and criminal records for marijuana possession have led to needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. And that’s before you address the racial disparities around who suffers the consequences. While white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people are arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates.”

“Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs,” the President said.

The moves Biden announced Thursday stop short of full decriminalization, which has enjoyed growing support among both political parties. But they are the first significant steps taken by a US president toward removing criminal penalties for possessing marijuana.

The US is known for having a highly punitive justice system, preferring to to take the view that people who commit crimes deserve to be treated very harshly, and hence we have disproportionately severe sentencing for offenses with people even receiving long sentences for extremely minor crimes under the infamous slogan of ‘three strikes and you’re out’. When this is coupled with police and prosecutors who are more concerned with getting convictions and ‘closing the case’ than with making sure that the person is truly guilty, it is no surprise that the US has both the highest number of people in prison and the highest rates of incarceration in the world, and that we repeatedly hear of people who have been exonerated after spending even decades in prison. Of course, this is only for crimes committed by the poor and marginalized. When it comes to white-collar crimes by the upper classes and corporations, we have a very lenient regime.

I hope Biden also decriminalizes marijuana. A case can also be made for decriminalize all personal use of drugs including heroin and cocaine. Portugal is one country that has decriminalized personal use of all recreational drugs including cocaine and heroin and it has not collapsed. Here is the story of how that came about.

I was also pleased to read abut the governor of Oregon who uses the power of clemency to right some of the injustices and mitigate some of the harshness.

Last October, Kate Brown, the governor of Oregon, signed an executive order granting clemency to 73 people who had committed crimes as juveniles, clearing a path for them to apply for parole.

The move marked the high point in a remarkable arc: as Brown approaches the end of her second term in January, she has granted commutations or pardons to 1,147 people – more than all of Oregon’s governors from the last 50 years combined.

When Brown, a Democrat, became governor in Oregon in 2015, she received the power of executive clemency – an umbrella term referring to the ability of American governors and the president to grant mercy to criminal defendants. Clemency includes pardons, which fully forgive someone who has committed a crime; commutations, which change prison sentences, often resulting in early release; reprieves, which pause punishment; and eliminating court-related fines and fees.

During the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, Brown was one of 18 governors across the US who used clemency to quickly reduce prison populations in the hopes of curbing virus transmission

She has pardoned 63 people. Most notably, she has commuted the sentences of 144 people convicted of crimes as serious as murder, yet have demonstrated “extraordinary evidence of rehabilitation”.

The US has to move towards a more humane justice system and ending the war on drugs would be a good start.


  1. txpiper says

    “I hope Biden also decriminalizes marijuana.”
    Biden’s role is to enforce the law. He is not the legislature.

    I expect the numbers will come out, but I don’t think there are very many people in federal prisons for nothing more than simple marijuana possession.

  2. seachange says

    It is true that de facto our law enforcement agencies and courts give lenience to some laws and not others.
    The video fun but it is missing some steps. Yes there was a famous doctor. But did the legislature of Portugal happen to just love this guy? Is their government structured so that the executive branch he is part of can just up and do this?

    I was under the impression that in the Netherlands something like this had already happened but this video acts as if Portugal is the only nation in the EU that has done this. I am curious as to why they make this distinction?

  3. StonedRanger says

    Oh my. How horrible it must be when a president uses their powers to help people instead of corporations and their rich friends or to enrich themselves. Its certainly a good thing 45 never did anything like that. /s

  4. says

    Actually, it’s the Justice Department’s role to enforce Federal laws, and the DoJ, under Biden’s appointees, can at least change the priorities that affect day-to-day law-enforcement actions: Federal prosecutors can choose who to prosecute and which charges to press, as well as what sentences to ask for once a defendant is convicted.

  5. txpiper says

    The President is responsible for implementing and enforcing the laws written by Congress and, to that end, appoints the heads of the federal agencies, including the Cabinet….
    The Cabinet and independent federal agencies are responsible for the day-to-day enforcement and administration of federal laws.
    …Under Article II of the Constitution, the President is responsible for the execution and enforcement of the laws created by Congress.
    …The mission of the Department of Justice (DOJ) is to enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law; to ensure public safety against threats foreign and domestic; to provide federal leadership in preventing and controlling crime; to seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behavior; and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.
    …The DOJ is made up of 40 component organizations, including the Drug Enforcement Administration…
    With a budget of approximately $25 billion, the DOJ is the world’s largest law office and the central agency for the enforcement of federal laws.
    The president is not an emperor, and has no constitutional or other legal authority to pick and choose which federal laws will or will not be enforced.

  6. tuatara says

    Drug use and possession should only ever be treated as issues of health and education. Inflicting a permanent criminal record on people who may be using drugs as a temporary escape from pain, whether physical or psychological, is inhumane. Those who choose drugs to alleviate the pain caused by an uncaring society should never be punished for it, as this simply reinforces the uncaring nature of that society.
    Controlling the supply of drugs is the only realistic way to minimise harm. If we provide clean drugs at a fair price in a regulated framework we can massively reduce the criminal involvement in the drug supply. If further to this we provide a secure supply chain that includes heath and educational resources at the point of sale we may be able to reduce peoples reliance on drugs and even help them to break their addiction.
    There is the keyword. HELP.
    #45 pardoned his own daughter’s father-in-law….
    Let me repeat that. T***p pardoned his daughter’s father-in-law…..
    who pled guilty to tax evasion, blackmail and interfering with a witness (or in other words obstruction of justice).
    Now Biden pardons some people who got caught with a joint and the repugnicant troll tells us that the president is not an emperor.
    Let’s none of us forget they said that.

  7. flex says

    @10 Tuatara,

    And there you have the distinction between lawful and good.

    Trump lawfully pardoned his daughter’s father-in-law.

    Biden released (I think I read that the number is about 6200) people who were jailed for an offence which in many states are no longer illegal. That was an act of goodness. I admit that Biden’s motivations may not have been solely based on helping others, the timing suggests other possible motivating factors. Biden is no paladin. Regardless, issuing a pardon for people held on the charge of simple possession was a good act.

    For those, like txpiper, who suggest that Biden should enforce the law. Biden did. The law grants the President the power to pardon federal offenses. I’m not certain what txpiper is complaining about, Biden followed the same law which allowed Trump to pardon his friends and cronies. Apparently the difference is that people like txpiper think that people arrested and imprisoned on charges of simple possession should be jailed. Luckily for the prisoners, Biden has more compassion than txpiper.

  8. Holms says

    #1 tx
    Biden’s role is to enforce the law.

    Instantly wrong; that’s the role of the attorney general. His is to be head of state and chief executive. To this end, he gets certain powers, including the pardon power. You might remember this one from when your orange moron clown pardoned a bunch of his own cronies…? Anyway, if you were at all consistent in your application of outrage you would have been equally disapproving of those pardons.

    But you’re a conservative near-term end times evangelical gun nut, so I really doubt it.

  9. John Morales says

    Holms, nah.

    txpiper @9 adduced excerpts of the text in the cited site, and those are presumably authoritative.

    That makes the claim instantly right.

    Mind you, the previous presidential instantiation by (“I can do whatever I want as President”) Trump was within that category of delusion.

  10. John Morales says

    txpiper, arguable. Difference between de facto and de jure.

    The President has preemptive pardon powers for presumptive cases, so that it’s lawful to, ahem, preemptively nullify any Federal legal consequences of any action.

    Trump has asserted he has the power to pardon himself but has said he didn’t need to use it because he hasn’t done anything wrong.

    The hypocrisy and the psychological projection evinced by Trumpists is very evident; indeed, that is why these things are under consideration.

    (Most recent example was Nixon, but of course, compared to Trump he was an utter… ‘leftist’)

  11. consciousness razor says

    The president is not an emperor, and has no constitutional or other legal authority to pick and choose which federal laws will or will not be enforced.

    I agree with txpiper on one (1) point, that the executive should have much less power than it is currently has.

    However, the fact remains that if Congress is okay with certain questionable executive actions or are simply uninterested in doing their jobs, then pointing at the Constitution gets you nowhere, because you’re not Congress either (just as the president isn’t).*

    Or, if Congress really does want to claw back some of the powers that it has effectively handed over to the president (or to bureaucrats in this or that department/agency), then it must pass actually some meaningful legislation in order to do so. (Good luck with that.)

    Then, given their capitalism, war-mongering and total disregard for everyone else in the world including their own constituencies, the conversation can be about the imperialism of our legislative branch instead of the executive one, since the Constitution doesn’t actually prevent imperialism. (If you believed it did, you’re a very silly person.) Voters can try to do something about it, though, if enough of them care. If they don’t, then they only have themselves to blame.

    Anyway, it’s remarkable that txpiper reaches for the rhetoric of emperors and so forth, when it’s about something utterly harmless like marijuana possession…. Do you ever bother to say even a single word about it, when presidents act like they can declare war, for instance? Or is “chief warlord” somehow supposed to be a valid Constitutional role for a president while “emperor of controlled substances enforcement” is not?

    *The courts (including the Supreme Court) isn’t Congress either, of course. But with so many conservatives in the judicial branch, that’s still what conservatives like you often try to use (unconstitutionally) to address these things, since in reality, you will reach for any power you can and use it to your advantage as much as you can, whether or not it’s Constitutional or legal or moral to do so.

  12. Holms says

    #9, #13
    From that same source: “The Attorney General is the head of the DOJ and chief law enforcement officer of the federal government.”

  13. John Morales says

    Holms, “The President is responsible for implementing and enforcing the laws written by Congress” and “The Attorney General is the head of the DOJ and chief law enforcement officer of the federal government.” are not contradictory claims.

  14. John Morales says

    Holms, I’m pointing out that more than one official can be charged with the duty of enforcing laws.
    Specifically, here both the President and the AG have the responsibility of enforcing laws.

    In short, that the AG is the “chief law enforcement officer” does not dispute that “The President is responsible for […] enforcing the laws”, and that is the entirety of the basis of your claim about that literal quotation being “Instantly wrong”.

    Not even slightly wrong about that specific claim, and so your assertion has no merit, other than to the extent that “Biden’s role is to enforce the law.” is not his only role, and also clearly not not others’ role, as a colloquial reading insinuates.

  15. John Morales says

    [Sunday arvo here]

    … though arguably, though both share personal responsibility, only one is ultimately responsible.
    “Buck stops here” Trumanesque type of thing, which Trump blatantly ignored and even repudiated.

    txpiper’s allusive insinuated condemnation of Biden stands in stark contrast with the conspicuous silence about Trump’s demonstrated Mafia Boss attitude.

    (and, Trump’s pardoning is on the record, for for what and for what reasons, and also stands in contrast with Biden’s weed pardons)

  16. Silentbob says

    Hey Morales, is the reference to Sunday arvo and such gibberish as, “for for what and for what reasons”, etc. indicate you’ve gone full Stevo and are posting off your nut?
    Because that would explain a lot. X-D

  17. John Morales says

    What can I say? Perhaps look at the timestamps and determine whether or not it’s likely that I’m so bibulous that I’m “off [my] nut” so early in the day.

    I must be wrecked by now, no? This is me off my nut and more. 😉

    A musical interlude which to you might seem random: Sunday arvo.

  18. No Respect says

    John Morales and txpiper are in dire need of euthanasia. Me too, actually, but it’s hard to get that done.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *