Last week the New York Times editorial board urged President Obama to issue a blanket commutation during the waning weeks of his presidency of the extremely long prison sentences handed out to many thousands of non-violent, petty drug offenders.
This is a good idea. Our nation’s prison population has ballooned during the war on drugs. In some cases prisoners were sentenced according to the pointless distinction between crack cocaine and powder cocaine, resulting in disproportionately long imprisonments. Other prisoners face many decades of confinement based on sentencing guidelines that were much harsher than those currently in place.
Obama has already pardoned or commuted the sentences for about a thousand inmates, but the clock is ticking for thousands more. President-elect Trump’s nominated attorney general, Jeff Sessions, strongly opposes sentencing reform and he has been highly critical of Obama’s grants of clemency.
So for thousands of prisoners who face unconscionably long sentences, the next few weeks are a matter, almost literally, of life and death.
But thousands of prisoners are an abstraction; Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is a hapless, flesh-and-blood human being who is currently awaiting a February court-martial on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. If convicted, he could face life in prison.
Bergdahl’s lawyer has asked President Obama for a pardon before the end of his term; Obama should grant it.
By way of reminder: Bowe Bergdahl got in trouble with the Army when he abandoned his post in Afghanistan in 2009 and was captured by the Taliban. He spent five years in harsh conditions, including solitary confinement and torture. In May 2014, he was repatriated in exchange for five Taliban members who were being held in Guantanamo.
Obama endured considerable criticism from the right for this exchange, but it was the correct decision. Time was running out for Bergdahl, and the circumstances of his capture were unknown. Obama would have rightly been subject to equal or greater criticism if he had left an American soldier to rot in enemy hands.
As Bergdahl’s failure to do his duty in Afghanistan became more evident, I urged leniency. Bergdahl was never mentally prepared to serve in the military and certainly not in combat. The Coast Guard discharged him for psychological reasons after 26 days of basic training, but the Army - in need of troops - inducted him under a special waiver that ignored evidence of his instability.
Then the Army sent him into combat in a dubious war in which America had mostly lost interest.
Obama should pardon Bergdahl because he is unlikely to get a fair trial under a Trump administration. The commander-in-chief-elect has already prejudged Bergdahl, calling him a “no-good traitor, who should have been executed.” “Thirty years ago,” Trump said, “he would have been shot.”
Trump never served in the military - he avoided Vietnam with four student deferments and a plea of “heel spurs” - and he is unlikely to have an even-handed or sympathetic understanding of a volunteer who was permitted to get in over his head.
Further, in Trump’s post-fact administration, Bergdahl will have a hard time defending himself. Here’s one example: it’s widely believed that six soldiers lost their lives searching for Bergdahl, but a careful Reuters reconstruction of events connected to Bergdahl’s disappearance indicates that the allegation simply isn’t true.
Will evidence like this be taken seriously in an administration led by a man who’s already made up his mind about Bergdahl and who is careless in his use of facts? Unlikely.
Clearly, Bergdahl failed to do his duty in Afghanistan. He should probably be punished, perhaps even beyond what he’s already suffered. But life in prison is a sentence far too harsh.
Obama has plenty of other things to worry about right now, and so does our nation. But letting Bergdahl fall into the hands of a vengeful, indiscriminate Trump administration is likely to create just one more sad statistic from a generation of soldiers who have suffered far too much because of our misguided Middle East policies.
Obama should pardon Bergdahl, while he still can.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.