WASHINGTON — President Biden on Tuesday used 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.
“I think I’m in a state of shock, really,” said Abraham Bolden Sr., 87, who was convicted of trying to sell a copy of a Secret Service file, even after witnesses admitted to lying for the prosecution in his case.
“I’ve been waiting so long,” said Mr. Bolden, who was in prison from 1966 to 1969. With Mr. Biden’s clemency order, his record is now wiped clean of that charge.
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 help 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 with employment after they are released.
The White House in a statement also said the Small Business Administration would in the coming days publish a rule making it easier for those with criminal records to apply for loans.
Mr. Biden’s action comes amid growing consternation among some progressive groups that 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 low and a domestic agenda stalled facing 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. They hope 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.
“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.”
During a virtual round table on Tuesday with a group of the formerly incarcerated, Dana Remus, the White House counsel, said Mr. Biden would continue to review clemency petitions in the coming months. And a senior administration official speaking on the condition of anonymity before the announcement said that 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. 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 people who received 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 inmates transferred to home confinement during the pandemic back to prison.
Almost a third of those who benefited from the clemency would have received a lesser sentence if they were charged today.
Mr. Biden based his decisions on clemency petitions sent to the Justice Department, which then made recommendations to the president, according to the White House. 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
Before his imprisonment, Mr. Bolden said he first met President John F. Kennedy during one of the then-president’s visits to Chicago.
An agent at the time, Mr. Bolden said he was relegated to guard a bathroom while his white peers were allowed to man the ballroom Mr. Kennedy was visiting. But he said Mr. Kennedy quickly struck up a conversation with Mr. Bolden and soon asked him to be the first Black man on his presidential detail.
After he was charged in 1964, Mr. Bolden said the government was trying to frame him for his intent to testify about 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.
Mr. Bolden said that not nearly enough progress has been made to overhaul the criminal justice system in the United States.
“We have to reconstruct the criminal justice system where there is real justice, and that can be done,” Mr. Bolden said. “But we don’t have that right now.”
“The hand is still on the scale against the so-called underprivileged people in America,” Mr. Bolden added. “The weight is still upon us.”
The clemency grants issued by Mr. Biden on Tuesday were more than any of his immediate five predecessors at the same point in their presidencies, the White House said. Mr. Biden has received more than 300 pardon petitions and more than 5,400 petitions for commutations so far in his presidency. More than 18,000 clemency petitions are pending, according to the Justice Department.
Those backlogs grew under former President Donald J. Trump, who 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.
Mr. Bolden said he never lost hope that he would be selected for a pardon, even though he had to wait more than 50 years for the call. He found solace in writing books about his experience.
“The incarceration that I was involved in permitted me to do some self-introspection and to learn some things I wanted to know all of my life,” Mr. Bolden said. “When I went to prison, I made it one my chief goals to do better and to learn something I could do for someone else.”
He said he wished he had been pardoned a year earlier so he could enjoy the news with his daughter and son, who died last year at the ages of 63 and 62 from cancer.