Obama grants 61 drug offenders clemency: Sign of shifting times?

This latest round of commutations is part of President Obama's broader push to reframe the way law enforcement treats drug offenses.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/File
President Obama speaks to reporters during his visit to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution outside Oklahoma City in this July 16. On Wednesday, Mr. Obama announced the commutations of 61 drug offenders.

President Obama granted clemency to 61 federal inmates Wednesday, giving the convicted drug offenders a second chance at life.

“The power to grant pardons and commutations,” Mr. Obama wrote in his letter to the 61 inmates, “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.”

All of the 61 inmates are serving time for drug possession or intent to sell and the majority are nonviolent offenders, but a few also carry firearm charges. Fifty-five of the inmates are expected to be released on July 28, and the remaining individuals will either be released September 26 or March 30 of next year.

Wednesday’s round of commutations brings Obama’s total count thus far up to 248 inmates – more than the past six presidents combined. And the White House has hinted that another round of commutations could occur before the end of Obama’s presidency. 

But the White House believes the United States can’t rely on clemency to fix the errors of the criminal justice system. 

“Despite the progress we have made, it is important to remember that clemency is nearly always a tool of last resort that can help specific individuals, but does nothing to make our criminal justice system on the whole more fair and just,” White House Counsel Neil Eggleston writes in a press release Wednesday. “Clemency of individual cases alone cannot fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies. So while we continue to work to resolve as many clemency applications as possible – and make no mistake, we are working hard at this – only broader criminal justice reform can truly bring justice to the many thousands of people behind bars serving unduly harsh and outdated sentences.” 

And in Obama’s push for criminal justice reform, advocacy for change has crossed party lines. 

“Even on Capitol Hill, policymakers in both parties have recognized that the billions spent during the decades-long war on drugs have created an unsustainably high prison population – the largest in the world – that is straining budgets,” the Monitor’s Harry Bruinius wrote in November. “In the past months, Mr. Obama has been continually promoting changes to the law enforcement system, calling for large scale reforms across the county, urging Congress to pass bipartisan legislation curbing harsh sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, and using executive orders to help those released from prison reintegrate back into society.” 

Of the 61 federal inmates commuted Wednesday, 21 of the individuals were serving life sentences. The majority of inmates are serving time for offenses involving cocaine.

And the inmates are dispersed geographically – they span across 24 states, with over a third of the commuted inmates imprisoned in Florida, Texas, and Illinois. Eleven inmates will be released from Florida prisons and Texas and Illinois will both have five early releases.

The inmates also differ in their time served: Robert Lee Lane has been serving a life sentence in Florida for possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of cocaine since 1990, and Damion Tripp has been serving a 20 year sentence in Missouri for possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of cocaine and a detectable amount of marijuana since 2008. 

Under Article II of the Constitution, the president of the United States is granted the power of clemency. And the president’s clemency power comes in two forms: commutations and pardons. Commutations are more rare than pardons, as the former is an “executive lowering of the penalty” and the latter issues an “executive forgiveness of crime.”

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