WASHINGTON — In a move that exemplifies President Obama’s pledge to radically reform the federal penal system and sentencing guidelines, he commuted the prison sentences of more than five dozen drug offenders on Wednesday. More than a third of the drug offenders were serving life sentences.
All of the 61 inmates are nonviolent drug offenders, sans the few who were convicted of firearms violations. According to reports, most of the inmates are set to be released on July 28, the New York Times reports.
Furthermore, Obama had lunch with some of the inmates whose sentences he shortened.
“By exercising these presidential powers, I have the chance to show people what a second chance can look like,” Obama said after his meal, according to CNN. Obama sat with the three inmates and was joined by several others whose sentences were commuted by both Obama’s predecessors, Presidents Clinton and Bush.
Obama, from the beginning of his first term, has worked to reduce what he and many U.S. prison system critics believed were extremely exorbitant sentences that led to overcrowding, excessive expenditures of taxpayers’ money and terms that offered little chance of reform. He had former Attorney General Eric Holder, the head of the U.S. Department of Justice, join the likes of California Congresswoman Maxine Waters to lead the charge to reduce the discrepancy of crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 8:1. That was the beginning.
He also directed Justice Department prosecutors to reduce mandatory minimums and widened the criteria for inmates applying for clemency. The efforts is one of the few Obama measures that has received support from both Democrats and Republicans — until recently as the increasingly contentious presidential campaign has brought bipartisan support to an abrupt halt.
Obama said, in a letter to the inmates, 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.”
This brings the total to 248 the number of inmates whose sentences Obama has commuted — a number that is more than the past six presidents combined, the White House stated. The number of commutation of sentences and full pardons are going to increase as the president’s term draws to a close in January 2017, political pundits predict.
Neil Eggleston, the White House counsel, stated that clemency is a tool of last resort that can help specific people, but doesn’t address the broader need for a justice system that’s “more fair and just.”