President Obama’s 944 commutations: Why he’s releasing prisoners

President Obama's commutations are part of an effort to reform the United States' criminal justice system, from mandatory minimum sentencing to re-entry programs for released prisoners. 

Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS/File
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to reporters during his visit to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution outside Oklahoma City in this 2015 photo. In April 2014, the administration of President Barack Obama announced the most ambitious clemency program in 40 years, inviting thousands of jailed drug offenders and other convicts to seek early release and urging lawyers across the country to take on their cases. Nearly two years later the program is struggling under a deluge of unprocessed cases, sparking concern within the administration and among justice reform advocates over the fate of what was meant to be legacy-defining achievement for Obama.

The White House announced on Friday that 72 inmates currently incarcerated in federal prisons will have their sentences commuted, as President Obama continues to work towards criminal justice reform during his last few months in office.

With Friday’s announcement, Mr. Obama has thus far commuted the sentences of nearly 1,000 inmates, more than any other president in US history. 

Proponents of Obama’s commutations praise this as a small - but highly visible - part of this administrations efforts to address the overcrowded US prisons, mostly filled by minorities who got long sentences due to controversial mandatory minimum sentencing rules.

“These grants represent 72 reunited families,” Cynthia W. Roseberry, project manager for Clemency Project 2014, told the Washington Post. “They also represent hope to others who have applied. We are grateful that President Obama is keeping his word to grant more clemency.”

The White House released a list of those granted more lenient sentences by Obama, many of whom were originally serving sentences that ranged from several decades to life, mostly for drug-related crimes.

The president has been especially proactive during his last year in office, commuting the majority of the 944 sentences in the past year. In the past eight days alone, the president has commuted 170 sentences.

“The President is committed to reinvigorating the clemency authority, demonstrating that our nation is a nation of second chances, where mistakes from the past will not deprive deserving individuals of the opportunity to rejoin society and contribute to their families and communities,” wrote White House counsel Neil Eggleston in a blog post.

Obama’s administration has been marked by his commitment to prison and criminal justice reform. After decades of skyrocketing prison populations due to the war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing, Obama says that "over-incarceration" is contrary to American values.

In August, the Justice Department announced that it would no longer use private prisons, institutions that have long been known for high rates of violence and safety violations. This move was lauded by criminal justice experts as a step forward in the nation’s approach towards incarceration.

Earlier this year, The Christian Science Monitor’s Madison Margolin reported on the Justice Department’s new re-entry initiatives, which were designed to give prisoners opportunities to succeed when they finally return to society:

This push is part of a larger trend in prison reform that has garnered support across the political spectrum as lawmakers take stock of the financial and societal costs of mass incarceration.

Beginning last year, the House Judiciary Committee began a series of markups aimed at reforming the US justice system, beginning with the Sentencing Reform Act of 2015, which reduced mandatory minimum sentencing requirements and provided alternatives for low-level drug offenders.

While justice reform has had bipartisan support in Congress, rising violent crime in some cities in the past year has eroded some of that support. Conservatives are concerned that the effort to soften sentencing laws may be sending the wrong message. But the high cost of maintaining a large prison populations has helped bring fiscal conservatives on board with reforms. 

“Only Congress can achieve the broader reforms needed to ensure our federal sentencing system operates more fairly and effectively,” said the White House’s Mr. Eggleston.

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