Por Invitación

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Oscar López and the Failure of the Clemency Initiative for Puerto Rico Inmates

Por Invitación

Kevin Lerman
04/06/2017 12:07 am

On March 17 of this year, then President Barack Obama commuted the sentence of political prisoner Oscar López Rivera.  This sentencing reduction was welcomed by those who saw López Rivera's imprisonment -- justified by so little evidence -- as an impermissible political act.  On the other hand, there are those who, seeing a very real link between López Rivera and the FALN attacks in the 1970s, have denounced President Obama's action.

Without getting into the political issues surrounding López Rivera's release, I'd like to call attention to the unequal treatment faced by the vast number of Puerto Rican prisoners under Obama's clemency initiative now the initiative's statistics have come to life.

While the press has obsessed over López Rivera, little attention has been paid to those Puerto Rican prisoners whose drug convictions were the stated target of clemency initiative in the first place.  President Obama's clemency initiative, announced in 2014, focused on federal prisoners serving sentences for drug convictions.

When Obama left the White House, he granted thousands of commutations and pardons.  I saw the process firsthand when Obama granted a petition I submitted pro bono while in law school on behalf a prisoner originally sentenced in the District of New Mexico.

One would have expected to the District of Puerto Rico to see a great number of commutations.  While Puerto Rico represents only 1% of the United States, the federal government exacts 2% of nationwide drug-trafficking convictions from the Island.  This is largely due to federal funds to back task forces that combine federal and local law enforcement efforts. The clemency initiative tried to limit the effects of draconian mandatory minimum sentence, that, instead of punishing drug-trafficking bosses, have greatly affected drug-addicts and small-time dealers.  Were the initiative to have applied proportionately to Puerto Rico, of Obama's 1,715 commutations, about 34 would have been granted to Puerto Ricans.  However, apart from López Rivera, the initiative only reached five prisoners from the Island.  Regardless of your political affiliation, this inequality in treatment is disheartening.

The fatal defect of the initiative may have been an overemphasis on the perspective of the same prosecutors who brought the case in deciding whether a person's sentence deserves commuting.  U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez prioritizes drug enforcement even higher than Washington and opposed Obama's earlier memoranda limiting the charging of mandatory minimum sentences.  Thus, it should come as no surprise that federal prosecutors in Puerto Rico wouldn't back petitions under the clemency initiative.

Sadly, in the era of President Donald Trump, it's not likely we'll see another initiative like Obama's.  But for the sake of future action and to better understand the recent past, we must recognize that the hard-line politics of the federal prosecutor don't just overpenalize the people of Puerto Rico, but they also stand in the way of relief on the rare occasion that Washington admits it has gone too far.

*The author is a Federal Public Defender at the California Appellate Project in Los Angeles and a former intern at the Federal Public Defender Office for Puerto Rico during 2015.



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