Obama's offers clemency to 58 non-violent drug offenders

The president's effort Thursday furthers an ambitious clemency program that has so far commuted 306 sentences, reflecting a broader push for criminal justice reform across the country.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama speaks in Washington on Wednesday. The Obama administration on Thursday commuted the prison sentences of 58 federal convicts, including 18 who were given life sentences.

President Obama commuted the prison terms of 58 non-violent drug offenders Thursday, a move that reflects growing efforts to revamp the criminal justice system.

"It just doesn't make sense to require a nonviolent drug offender to serve 20 years, or in some cases, life, in prison," Mr. Obama said in a statement.

His action, which includes commutations for 18 people who had been given life sentences, comes as a series of efforts at the state and federal level focus on rolling back harsh laws that kept many nonviolent offenders behind bars for decades and, advocates say, continued to punish them once they were released.

The prisoners given commutations have been "granted a second chance to lead productive and law-abiding lives," Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates told the Associated Press.

The Obama administration has maintained that helping ex-prisoners transition back into society is key to helping to halt the revolving door of the criminal justice system.

Late last month, the Justice Department introduced a program to make it easier for convicted felons to obtain state-issued IDs once they are released.

While it seems like a small step, not being able to obtain an ID can have an impact on whether someone is able to open a bank account, apply for a loan, or even enroll their own child in school, as the Monitor's Henry Gass reported.

Other efforts, including one in Virginia, have focused on restoring voting rights to ex-offenders, and on rolling back state laws that barred people convicted of drug crimes from receiving food stamps and other welfare benefits.

Most of the 58 prisoners receiving clemency on Thursday are now due for release on Sept. 2, while others will be released in the next two years.

Many had been convicted of possessing or dealing crack cocaine or methamphetamine, reflecting a growing sense that laws that imposed much stiffer penalties for offenses that involved crack rather than powder cocaine were unduly harsh.

Critics have long said the laws, including the common 100 to 1 sentencing ratio for the two drugs, were heavily biased against African-American defendants.

Among those in the 58 is Charles Brown, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2004 for crack cocaine, even as the judge said his sentence was too harsh.

Judge Mary Lisi, who presided over the Rhode Island man's case, said she would have imposed a different sentence, but federal laws and Mr. Brown's previous convictions left her "with no choice." He will now be released on Sept. 2.

With the commutations, Obama has now pardoned 306 prisoners, a number his administration has said is expected to increase as the end of his presidency grows nearer.

In April 2014, the administration announced the most ambitious clemency effort in 40 years, though implementation has been hampered by unprocessed cases.

Inmates are eligible for the program if they have served at least 10 years behind bars and have been well-behaved, along with other considerations.

But at the current pace, "the initiative remains a lottery," for thousands of other convicts, Rachel Barkow, faculty director at the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law at New York University School of Law told Reuters.

She called the commutations a positive step, but added, "they also illustrate how much more this administration needs to do."

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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