Why Obama cut prison sentences of 46 drug offenders

President Obama on Monday is commuting the the prison sentences of 46 federal drug offenders as part of a broader effort to make the criminal justice system more equitable.

Evan Vucci/AP Photo
President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, July 13, 2015. President Barack Obama is cutting the prison sentences of 46 convicts as part of a broader effort to make the criminal justice fairer and ease the punishment of those serving more time than their crimes warranted.

President Obama announced Monday that he was cutting the prison sentences of 46 nonviolent federal drug offenders, including 14 who were serving life sentences.

“These men and women were not violent criminals, but the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years ... their punishments did not fit the crime,” Mr. Obama said in a video released on the White House Facebook page. “I believe that America, at its heart, is a nation of second chances, and I believe these folks deserve their second chance.”

The decision is part of a broader bipartisan effort to make the criminal justice system more equitable. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have been working together on legislation, and in 2014 the US Department of Justice widened the path to clemency for federal drug offenders.

For his part, Obama will spend the week focused on plans to overhaul the criminal justice system: On Tuesday, he will lay out ideas toward fairness during a speech to the NAACP, and will become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison Thursday when he goes to Oklahoma’s El Reno Correctional Institution.

Some critics have noted that the commutations “are symbolic and are dwarfed by the scale of the issue,” The Christian Science Monitor’s Sanya Mansoor wrote on Saturday. Even Vanita Gupta, former deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union and now the top civil rights prosecutor for the Justice Department, told the Monitor last year that clemency expansion alone won’t be enough to cure the system’s ills.

But, Ms. Gupta added, “I think [it] marks a turn away from the old business as usual in the federal criminal justice system.... I think the president is feeling empowered to do this in part because there has been tremendous conservative leadership on this in the states for several years now.”

Monday’s action brought Obama’s total number of commutations during his term to 89 – the most of any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, who commuted 80 sentences in 1966. Unlike a pardon, which erase any legal liabilities as a result of conviction, commutation cuts the punishment short, but leaves the conviction in place.

Obama wrote letters to each of the 46 individuals to notify them of the commutation.

“Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity,” the president wrote. “It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change.

“I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong, and change your life for the better,” he added

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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