USA Justice First Look

On Obama's last day in office, a final act of mercy

President Obama punctuated his legacy of clemency and criminal justice reform on Thursday, commuting the sentences of 330 federal inmates convicted of drug crimes.

President Obama speaks during his final presidential news conference, on Jan. 18, in the briefing room of the White House in Washington. In his last major act as president, Mr. Obama cut short the sentences of 330 federal inmates convicted of drug crimes.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
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President Obama continued his record-breaking run of commutations to reformed drug criminals right up to his last hours in the White House, granting clemency to 330 federal prisoners on Thursday.

As staffers moved down the White House halls, packing Mr. Obama’s remaining belongings into boxes, the president signed the largest batch of commutations ever issued on a president in a single day, bringing his total to 1,715.

Obama broke another record, for the number of commutations issued by a single president, when he granted 209 commutations on Tuesday, 109 of which were life sentences, part of his second-term push to ensure that what he saw as an overly punitive US justice system was infused with mercy.

"He wanted to do it. He wanted the opportunity to look at as many as he could to provide relief," Neil Eggleston, Obama's White House counsel, told the Associated Press in his West Wing office. "He saw the injustice of the sentences that were imposed in many situations, and he has a strong view that people deserve a second chance."

Obama’s second-term ramp up in commutations and pardons aligned with his use of executive powers to push to get results where a Republican-controlled Congress dug in its heels on some of the fundamental reforms he wanted. Obama spent much of his presidency pushing to reform the nation’s harsh sentencing laws, especially legacy ones from the war on drugs. The United States currently houses about half of the world’s prison population.

Along with a record number of commutations, Obama also granted a total of 212 pardons, bringing his total clemency offerings to 1,927, including a total of 568 who were facing life sentences. A commutation cuts short a prison sentence and allows a prisoner to return to their family and civilian life. A pardon goes further – it indicates forgiveness, and restores full rights, such as the right to vote – but is not the same as being declared legally innocent.

Bernard Smith was one of those who had his sentence commuted by Obama, giving him a chance to start over after 13 years away from his wife and children.

Mr. Smith was arrested in 2002 after he agreed to procure marijuana to sell, along with crack cocaine his brother had obtained. After the two sold the drugs to undercover officers, Smith was charged with the more severe distribution of crack cocaine offense, and was sentenced to 22 years behind bars.

His sentence was far longer than his brother’s, given what the court described as his "extensive criminal history." He still had 10 years to serve when he received news Obama had commuted his sentence.

"He's looking to turn his life around," said Michelle Curth, his attorney. "He's a good person who, like so many people, got involved in something he's been punished for already." Smith hopes to get licensed in heating and air conditioning maintenance and has lined up family members to help him adjust.

Obama personally pored over the application of every inmate whose sentence he commuted, a portion of the 16,000 applications the White House received by the August 2016 deadline. Under Obama’s orders, Smith will not be set free until January 2019 – two years after Obama has left office – and only if he enrolls in a residential drug treatment program.

The president favored those whose records showed sincere efforts to reform, get qualifications, and stay in touch with their families.

Earlier this week, the president also commuted the 35-year sentence of former US military intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who he said had shown remorse and already served a long enough sentence.

However he stopped short of granting commutations or pardons to other high-profile figures seeking clemency, including accused Army deserter Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.