Why Obama will be the first president to visit a federal prison

President Obama's trip to a federal prison in Oklahoma is part of the administration's efforts to reform the criminal justice system.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks after a briefing in Arlington, Virginia July 6, 2015.

On Thursday, President Obama will become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. 

Mr. Obama will travel to Oklahoma's El Reno Correctional Institution, home to Jason Hernandez – a prisoner convicted on drug charges who had his life sentence commuted by Obama in 2013, reports Vice News. 

The trip, which will be recorded for a Vice documentary airing on HBO this fall, comes amidst the Obama administration’s broader efforts towards creating what it sees as a fairer US criminal justice system, mostly in response to tougher drug laws that disproportionately imprisoned minorities. 

The New York Times reports that in the coming weeks, Obama is expected to issue orders freeing dozens of federal prisoners locked up on nonviolent drug offenses, possibly taking the total number of commutations under his presidency to more than 80.

This will mean he will probably commute more sentences at one time than any president has in nearly half a century. 

Lyndon B. Johnson commuted the sentences of 80 prisoners in the 1966 fiscal year. No president has matched that feat in his entire administration, let alone a single year. Currently, Obama has commuted four times as many prisoners as President George W. Bush – although Bush has pardoned many more, Vox reports.

Pardons are acts of presidential forgiveness that erase any remaining legal liabilities. Commutations reduce sentence lengths but don’t restore civil rights lost as a result of conviction.

While Obama’s efforts at clemency are extraordinary by presidential historical norms, critics say the steps are symbolic and are dwarfed by the scale of the issue.

More than 30,000 federal inmates have come forward in response to his administration’s call for clemency applications, The New York Times reports.

Obama’s commitment to easing punishments has been evident since his first term, when he signed a law that reduced disparities in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine related crimes. In those four years, his attorney general at the time, Eric H. Holder Jr., also issued new guidelines for prosecutors to avoid "excessive" prison terms.

Obama said he would have granted more inmates clemency or commutation earlier in his term but the former head of the Office of the Pardon Attorney, Ronald Rogers, who was appointed under the Bush Administration, had recommended very few pardons.

"I noticed that what I was getting was mostly small-time crimes from very long ago," Obama told The Huffington Post. "It'd be a 65-year-old who wanted a pardon to get his gun rights back. Most of them were legitimate, but they didn't address the broader issues that we face, particularly around nonviolent drug offenses. So we've revamped now the DOJ office. We're now getting much more representative applicants.”

In April 2014, Obama replaced the US pardon attorney with Deborah Leff, who had a track record of improving access to the justice system for the less financially able.

The president’s administration also now receives applications from an independent consortium called Clemency Project 2014, which includes more than 50 law firms, 20 law schools and more than 1,500 lawyers, according to The New York Times.

So far the organization has sent just over 50 applications to the Justice Department and screened out 13,000 inmates who did not meet the guidelines, The New York Times reports.

The criteria for commutation petitions, issued by the Justice Department in April 2014, included some of the following conditions. First, prisoners must be nonviolent offenders, who would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense(s) today. Second, they must have already served at least 10 years in prison. Third, they should be serving a sentence for their first crime or lack a significant criminal history. 

Criminal justice reform has brought Democrats and Republicans together. Although some in the Senate still advocate harsh penalties for drug offenders, bipartisan collaboration is increasingly evident. 

The New York Times notes “The Center for American Progress, a liberal advocacy organization with close ties to the White House and Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, has teamed up with Koch Industries, the conglomerate owned by the conservative brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch, who finance Republican candidates, to press for reducing prison populations and overhauling sentencing.”

The Obama administration’s focus on criminal justice signals a divergence from policies during the earlier so-called war on drugs, which began in the 1970s. Under President Richard Nixon, the country imposed harsh prison sentences on drug offenses, including mandatory minimum sentences that required judges to issue long prison terms, Vox reports. 

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