President Joe Biden has granted the first three pardons of his term, providing clemency to a Kennedy-era Secret Service agent convicted of federal bribery charges that he tried to sell a copy of an agency file and to two people who were convicted on drug-related charges but went on to become pillars in their communities.
The Democratic president also commuted the sentences of 75 others for nonviolent, drug-related convictions. The White House announced the clemencies Tuesday as it launched a series of job training and reentry programs for those in prison or recently released.
Many of those who received commutations have been serving their sentences on home confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several were serving lengthy sentences and would have received lesser terms had they been convicted today for the same offenses as a result of the 2018 bipartisan sentencing reform ushered into law by the Trump administration.
“America is a nation of laws and second chances, redemption, and rehabilitation,” Biden said in a statement announcing the clemencies. “Elected officials on both sides of the aisle, faith leaders, civil rights advocates, and law enforcement leaders agree that our criminal justice system can and should reflect these core values that enable safer and stronger communities.”
Those granted pardons are:
— Abraham Bolden Sr., 86, the first Black Secret Service agent to serve on a presidential detail. In 1964, Bolden, who served on President John F. Kennedy's detail, faced federal bribery charges that he attempted to sell a copy of a Secret Service file. His first trial ended in a hung jury.
Following his conviction in a second trial, key witnesses admitted lying at the prosecutor's request, according to the White House. Bolden, of Chicago, was denied a retrial and served three years, nine months in federal prison. Bolden has maintained his innocence and wrote a book in which he argued he was targeted for speaking out against racist and unprofessional behavior in the Secret Service.
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Bolden in an interview said he believed Biden “sympathized” with him and "saw a need to honor due process in my case.” The pardon came nearly 61 years after he joined the Kennedy detail. He said he asked off of the detail after enduring racial slurs from fellow agents and small nooses were left around his workplace.
“I met President Kennedy on April 28, 1961 and on April 25 I got word of the presidential pardon," said Bolden, who first petitioned the White House for a pardon during the Nixon administration. "That’s pretty close.”
— Betty Jo Bogans, 51, was convicted in 1998 of possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine in Texas after attempting to transport drugs for her boyfriend and his accomplice. Bogans, a single mother with no prior record, received a seven-year sentence. In the years since her release from prison, Bogans has held consistent employment, even while undergoing cancer treatment, and has raised a son.
— Dexter Jackson , 52, of Athens, Georgia, was convicted in 2002 for using his pool hall to facilitate the trafficking of marijuana. Jackson pleaded guilty and acknowledged he allowed his business to be used by marijuana dealers.
After Jackson was released from prison, he converted his business into a cellphone repair service that employs local high school students through a program that provides young adults with work experience. Jackson has built and renovated homes in his community, which has a shortage of affordable housing.
Civil rights and criminal justice reform groups have pushed the White House to commute sentences and work harder to reduce disparities in the criminal justice system. Biden’s grants of clemency also come as the administration has faced congressional scrutiny over misconduct and the treatment of inmates in the beleaguered federal Bureau of Prisons, which is responsible for inmates serving sentences of home confinement.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden in his first commutations of his presidency focused on petitions from individuals who had less than four years to serve.
Biden, as head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, helped shepherd through the 1994 crime bill that many criminal justice experts say contributed to harsh sentences and mass incarceration of Black people.
During his 2020 White House run, Biden vowed to reduce the number of people incarcerated in the U.S. and called for nonviolent drug offenders to be diverted to drug courts and treatment.
He also has pushed for better training for law enforcement and called for criminal justice system changes to address disparities that have led to minorities and the poor making up a disproportionate share of the nation's incarcerated population.
Inimai Chettiar, federal director of the criminal justice reform advocacy group Justice Action Network, called Biden's first pardons and commutations “just modest steps” and urged Biden “to meet the urgency of the moment.”
“President Biden ran on a promise to help end mass incarceration, and he has broad public support for that promise,” Chettiar added.
Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump, granted 144 pardons and clemency to 238 during his four years in office.
Some criminal justice advocates are pressing for Biden to act with more haste, calling on the president to establish a permanent clemency review board. More than 18,000 clemency petitions are pending, according to the Justice Department.
White House counsel Dana Remus, at a virtual roundtable discussion on Tuesday with formerly incarcerated people hosted by the Biden administration, said that the pardons and commutations are “just the beginning.”
“The President will continue to review clemency petitions over the coming months,” Remus said. “And we will continue all of this critically important work in supporting formerly incarcerated persons in creating second chances and ensuring that our criminal justice system is more just and more equal.”
Trump sought the advice of prison reform advocate Alice Johnson, a Black woman whose life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense he commuted in 2018. He was also lobbied by celebrity Kim Kardashian as well as advisers inside the White House, including daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, as he weighed applications for clemency.
The Republican used his pardon authority to help several political friends and allies, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Republican operative Roger Stone and Charles Kushner, the father-in-law of Ivanka Trump.
Among Trump's final acts as president was pardoning his former chief strategist Steve Bannon and Al Pirro, the ex-husband of Fox News host and Trump ally Jeanine Pirro.
Prosecutors alleged that Bannon, who had yet to stand trial when he was pardoned, had duped thousands of donors who believed their money would be used to fulfill Trump’s chief campaign promise to build a wall along the southern border. Instead, Bannon allegedly diverted more than $1 million, paying a salary to one campaign official and personal expenses for himself. Pirro was convicted in 2000 on tax charges.
With the slate of pardons and commutations announced Tuesday, Biden has issued more grants of clemency than any of the previous five presidents at this point in their terms, according to the White House.
In addition to the grants of clemency, Biden announced several new initiatives that are meant to help formerly incarcerated people gain employment — an issue that his administration is driving home as key to lowering crime rates and preventing recidivism.
The Labor Department is directing $140 million toward programs that offer job training, pre-apprenticeship programs, digital literacy training and pre-release and post-release career counseling and more for youth and incarcerated adults.
The $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed by Congress last year includes a trio of grant programs that the administration says promote hiring of formerly incarcerated individuals. And the Labor and Justice Departments announced on Tuesday a collaborative plan to provide $145 million over the next year on job skills training as well as individualized employment and reentry plans for people serving time in the Bureau of Prisons.
Biden said the new initiatives are vital to helping the more than 600,000 people released from prison each year get on stable ground.
"Helping those who served their time return to their families and become contributing members of their communities is one of the most effective ways to reduce recidivism and decrease crime," Biden said.
Babwin reported from Chicago. Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.