Today, President Obama announced the commutation of sentences for 61 federal prisoners, all of them non-violent criminals sentenced under the country’s onerous mandatory minimum laws.
The aggressive sentencing grid has many of these prisoners locked up for life. All of the inmates are serving time for drug possession, intent to sell or related crimes. Most are nonviolent offenders, although a few were also charged with firearms violations. Obama’s commutation shortens their sentences, with most of the inmates set to be released July 28.
Obama has now commuted the prison sentences of 248 people, more than any president. Lyndon Johnson commuted 226 sentences and combined presidents Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton and George W. Bush commuted just 117 sentences. In his first term, Obama was very staid in his use of clemency, granting just one commutation and five pardons.
Article II of the Constitution grants the president wide-ranging power to grant commutations and pardons for federal crimes. A commutation lessens the sentence of someone who has been convicted of a crime, but does not absolve that person of legal guilt. Pardons go further, nullifying all the effects of a conviction.
The criteria inmates must meet in order to be considered for commutations include: having been incarcerated longer than 10 years; demonstrating good behavior while in prison; and having received a sentence that is longer than would be granted under current sentencing laws.
Obama, in a letter to the inmates receiving commutations, said the presidential power to grant commutations and pardons “embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws.”
In a bid to call further attention to the issue, Obama plans to meet Wednesday with people whose sentences were previously commuted by him or under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The White House said the former inmates would share their experiences about the challenges of re-entering society after incarceration.
Legal scholars who study clemency say the regular use of the pardon power is a healthy check and balance to long and expensive prison sentences.
“Throughout the remainder of his time in office, the president is committed to continuing to issue more grants of clemency as well as to strengthening rehabilitation programs,” Neil Eggleston, the White House counsel, said in a blog post.
He added that clemency is a tool of last resort that can help specific people, but it doesn’t address the broader need for a justice system that’s “more fair and just.”
Though there’s wide bipartisan support in Congress for overhauling the criminal justice system, momentum has slowed as the chaotic presidential campaign has made cooperation between Republicans and Democrats this year increasingly difficult.
In January 2014, the Justice Department began a drive to encourage some low-level drug offenders to seek clemency. Later that year, the United States Sentencing Commission released new rules making nearly 50,000 federal prisoners serving time for drug offenses eligible for early release starting in November 2015.
For a complete list of all the people whose sentences President Obama has commuted go to:http://www.justice.gov/pardon/obama-commutations