Obama is approving hardly any clemency requests from the fastest-growing group in prison

Mothers watch their children arrive to visit at a women’s state prison in California.
Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/File

President Obama has commuted the sentences of 673 prisoners since taking office, but only about 50 of them have been women.

With about four months to go before Obama’s term ends, time is running out to even that proportion, according to Amy Povah, a former federal inmate whose 24-year sentence was commuted by President Bill Clinton in 2000.

Povah, who recently spoke about her clemency in the documentary “Incarcerating US,” said it’s unfathomable that so few women have been granted clemency by Obama.

“Women are not anybody I feel that society needs to be afraid of,” Povah told Business Insider. “There are exceptions, but I just wasn’t in there with women that I would be concerned about if they were to be released.”

Povah was convicted of drug conspiracy and sentenced in 1992 to 24 years without parole. Her case received national media attention after Glamour magazine published a profile of her in 1999, describing how her harsh sentence for playing a small role in a drug conspiracy contrasted with that of her husband, Sandy Pofahl, who served no time in federal prison despite being the kingpin of a MDMA manufacturing syndicate.

Povah is now the founder and president of CAN-DO Clemency, a nonprofit that advocates clemency for nonviolent drug offenders. She said her experience of receiving a harsh sentence for minor involvement with a drug conspiracy is a common one among women in the federal system: They’re often the girlfriends or wives of more culpable drug dealers, and are unable to negotiate plea deals with prosecutors because of their lack of bargaining information.

Povah said women have been the population “hardest hit” by the federal government’s war on drugs, and they’re now slipping under the radar of presidential clemency – the only hope many have left of securing a release. Povah has helped women file clemency applications and seen scores of them rejected with no explanation from the Office of the Pardon Attorney, she said, despite receiving widespread support from the public and lawmakers alike.

“They’re cases where the public goes, ‘Huh?’ And they look heavy-handed,” Povah said. “We can’t figure out why you’re not seeing some of the very best candidates, and they are releasing other people.”

While women make up 6.7% of all federal inmates, they have become the fastest-growing correctional population in the country, according to statistics from the Department of Justice.

A common misconception of the federal prison system is that it houses hardened, violent criminals, Povah said. That’s not the case – only about 7% of all federal inmates are convicted of violent crimes.

Povah said most federal female inmates aren’t doing time for murder and don’t have extensive criminal backgrounds. Many of them are serving decadeslong sentences, even life without parole, despite being first-time offenders.

“It is common, and it’s why I promised to keep fighting and to try to help with women who are in similar situations as myself,” she said. “There were some big-time drug dealers – I’m not going to say there weren’t, but it’s just a different caliber. I didn’t see behavior that I would be worried about inside the prison.”