WASHINGTON — President Biden said on Tuesday that he would use his clemency powers for the first time to commute the sentences of 75 drug offenders and issue three pardons, including to the first Black Secret Service agent to work on a presidential detail, who had long maintained he had been wrongfully convicted.
“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,” Mr. Biden said in a statement, adding that those receiving clemency had “demonstrated their commitment to rehabilitation and are striving every day to give back and contribute to their communities.”
Mr. Biden’s top aides described the use of presidential power as part of a broader strategy to overhaul the criminal justice system by relying less on prison to punish nonviolent drug offenders and using employment programs to prevent the formerly incarcerated from returning to prison. On the same day Mr. Biden detailed the commutations, the Justice and Labor Departments announced a $145 million plan to provide job skills training to federal inmates to help them gain work when they are released.
The commutations will be made official on Tuesday, officials said.
Mr. Biden’s action comes amid growing consternation among progressive groups, which say the president has not focused enough on issues resonating in communities of color, such as voting rights or legislation to overhaul policing.
With his approval rating declining and a domestic agenda stalled amid a bare majority in Congress, the president has fielded calls from his allies to pivot away from day-to-day negotiations with lawmakers and instead wield his executive power. The hope is that would allow him to showcase accomplishments and efforts to reduce rising crime and inflation ahead of midterm elections that Democrats appear on course to lose.
The White House views the strategy to reduce recidivism among former inmates as both a prison reform and a crime-fighting strategy, according to a senior administration official speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity before the announcement. But the official said the administration was reviewing additional clemency petitions and voters should still expect Mr. Biden to act on other criminal justice issues, including an executive order to address policing.
The commutations also appeared to be an effort to compensate drug offenders subjected to harsh sentences rooted in a string of bills Mr. Biden helped pass during his 36 years in the Senate that laid the groundwork for mass incarceration. He apologized on the campaign trail for portions of one of the more aggressive measures he had championed, the 1994 crime bill.
Among those to be pardoned was Betty Jo Bogans, a 51-year-old convicted in 1998 for possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine after attempting to help her boyfriend transport drugs. Neither her boyfriend nor her accomplice was arrested. Ms. Bogans, a single mother with no prior record, received a seven-year sentence.
Abraham Bolden Sr., 86, was charged with trying to sell a confidential Secret Service file in 1964 after President John F. Kennedy appointed him as the first Black man to serve on a presidential detail. After his arrest, he claimed that the government was trying to frame him for his intent to expose misconduct in the Secret Service. His first trial ended in a hung jury, but he was convicted during a second trial, even after witnesses admitted to lying at the request of the prosecution.
And Dexter Jackson of Georgia, 52, received a pardon after admitting to allowing his business to be used to sell marijuana, even though he did not sell the drugs directly. He now renovates homes in areas lacking affordable housing, according to the White House.
All 75 of those who were to receive commutations were nonviolent drug offenders, many of whom were serving their sentences on home confinement because of the threat of the coronavirus pandemic, according to an administration official.
The Justice Department took a step to rely less on federal prison in December by reversing a Trump-era legal opinion that said the Federal Bureau of Prisons would have to return to prison inmates transferred to home confinement during the pandemic.
Almost a third of those who benefited from the clemency would have received a lower sentence if they were charged today. Mr. Biden has issued more grants for clemency than any of his immediate five predecessors at the same point in their presidencies, the official said.
The actions were also a reversal of how former President Donald J. Trump used his clemency power. Mr. Trump at times bypassed the usual clemency process that runs through the Justice Department, choosing instead to rely on his friends and allies for recommendations and using his pardons and commutations to benefit people with wealth and connections, including some who abused the power of elected offices.
The Biden administration returned to the pre-Trump process, in which clemency petitions from inmates were sent to the Justice Department, which made recommendations to the president, according to administration officials. Commutations reduce prison terms but do not overturn convictions, while presidential pardons, which wipe away convictions, are generally given only to those who have already served their sentences.