Obama looks to end 2015 with dyad of justice and forgiveness

In his final address before leaving for his annual family trip to Hawaii, President Obama commuted the sentences of 95 prisoners and pardoned two more.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference in the White House Brady Press Briefing Room, in Washington (December 18th, 2015)

On Friday, President Obama issued two pardons and commuted the sentences of 95 prisoners, most of whom had been convicted of non-violent drug offenses.

The commutations, the most Mr. Obama has issued at one time, punctuated a year of efforts on the part of the White House and members of Congress to bring reforms to the criminal justice system, particularly in relation to mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses that are perceived as disproportionately applied to minority offenders.

"The president's decision today to commute the prison terms of 95 individuals is another sign of this administration's strong commitment to ensuring fairness in the criminal justice system," Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said in a statement.

As the nation’s first black president, Obama has sometimes been criticized for not doing more to reduce the ways that inequality in the criminal justice system affects black communities. But in the twilight of his presidency, he has taken significant steps to leave a lasting legacy of criminal justice reform, particularly as it is applied to minorities.

In 2014, Obama created the Clemency Project 2014 (CP14), which sought to streamline and accelerate the process for clemency requests. The number of people Obama whose sentences he commuted outside of CP14 is larger than the number he granted clemency to within the project, and CP14 faced steep legislative and funding hurdles, but it was seen by some as a positive step forward.  

In Congress, bipartisan support for efforts seeking to reduce overly harsh sentences for drug charges has also grown during the Obama administration.

In July, the US Senate combined elements of a bill called the CORRECTIONS Act with the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Act aimed, jointly, at reducing the prison population and lowering sentences, sometimes by as much as ten years.

In October, reduced-sentence reforms reintroduced about 6,000 people back into society, and there are estimates that as many as 40,000 people could have their sentences modified over the next few years.  

“Six thousand people could be a scary thing,” Mary Price, general counsel of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told the Huffington Post. “Or it could be a signal that we as a nation are serious about rethinking our approach to crime and punishment.”

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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