Biden Commutes Sentences and Pardons Marijuana Offenses
In what the White House called a decisive move echoing the core tenet of equal justice under law, President Joe Biden announced a set of substantial clemency actions aimed at addressing glaring disparities within the U.S. criminal justice system. The president, underscoring bipartisan consensus on the need for a fair and unbiased legal framework, declared a series of important measures toward realizing the promise of equal justice in American communities.
“I am announcing additional steps I am taking to make the promise of equal justice a reality,” Biden declared, emphasizing that equal justice is a “foundational principle on which America was built.”
The first measure involves commuting sentences for 11 individuals serving extended terms for non-violent drug offenses. Among the notable cases receiving commutations are Darryl Allen Winkfield of Augusta, Ga., Leroy Lymons of Pensacola, Fla., and Earlie Deacon Barber of Dothan, Ala., each of whom was sentenced to life in prison. Winkfield was convicted in 1998 of conspiracy to distribute and to possess cocaine. Biden commuted the sentence, leaving intact a 10-year probation when Winkfield is released in April 2024.
In 2012, Lymons was sentenced to life for conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of a mixture and substance containing a detectable amount of cocaine. The commutation clears Lymons for release after 27 years. In 2009, Barber was sentenced in Alabama for conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute five kilograms of a mixture and substance containing cocaine base. He will now be released in April 2024, with a remaining 10 years of supervised probation.
In the president’s words, these individuals “would have been eligible for reduced sentences” under current standards. He said the move underscores his administration’s commitment to rectifying outdated and unjust sentencing practices.
Drawing attention to the crack-to-powder sentencing disparity, Biden noted that he supports initiatives to eliminate the sentencing difference, asserting that it “does not advance public safety.” He said the move aligns with his broader push for criminal justice reform.
“I have exercised my clemency power more than any recent predecessor has at this point in their presidency,” Biden stated. “And while today’s announcement marks important progress, my administration will continue to review clemency petitions and deliver reforms that advance equal justice, address racial disparities, strengthen public safety, and enhance the wellbeing of all Americans.”
The White House insisted that law enforcement and experts now recognize that the crack-to-powder sentencing disparity is not supported by science, does not advance public safety, and disproportionately impacts Black communities.
Administration officials said Attorney General Merrick Garland has also expressed support for eliminating the crack-to-powder sentencing disparity and has directed federal prosecutors to promote the equivalent treatment of crack and powder cocaine offenses.
“As the president proposed as a senator in 2007, a fair criminal justice system requires that Congress end, once and for all, this unjust and racially discriminatory sentencing disparity,” the White House said in a statement. “And Congress must make these changes fully retroactive.” Building on his previous pardon of simple possession offenses, Biden added, “It’s time that we right these wrongs.”
The move extends to marijuana offenses committed on certain federal lands, encapsulating a comprehensive approach to marijuana reform, to which the president also signed a proclamation to pardon additional offenses related to the use and possession of marijuana under federal and D.C. law. “Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs,” Biden insisted.
“Just as no one should be in a federal prison solely due to the use or possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either. That’s why I continue to urge governors to do the same with regard to state offenses and applaud those who have since taken action.”