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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Obama Commutes 22 Drug-Offense Sentences

(CN) - President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 22 drug offenders on Tuesday, more than doubling his total number of sentence commutations in one day.

The majority of the men and women whom the president pardoned were in prison for manufacturing or distributing crack cocaine. The White House said these individuals had been sentenced under an "outdated sentencing regime."

Eight of the 22 individuals had been sentenced to life in prison. All are now scheduled for release on July 28, 2015.

One of the inmates whose sentence was commuted had been sentenced to life for growing marijuana. Another had been sentenced to 420 months in prison after he had taken a job as a crack "cook" to support his family.

The president's decision came just 10 days after he told the Huffington Post in an interview that he planned to use his clemency powers "more aggressively."

Obama attributed his previously infrequent use of his clemency powers to a conflict with the former head of the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon, a George W. Bush appointee.

"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."

For the first time in his presidency, President Obama sent each commutation recipient a letter encouraging them to take advantage of the second chance they have been given.

"I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around," the letter reads. "Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change. Perhaps even you are unsure of how you will adjust to your new circumstances. But remember that you have the capacity to make good choices. By doing so, you will affect not only your own life, but those close to you. You will also influence, through your example, the possibility that others in your circumstances get their own second chance in the future."

In his previous seven years in office, Obama has only commuted the sentences of 21 people and pardoned 64.

Though the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously last year to let federal inmates imprisoned for drug offenses apply for retroactive sentencing reduction, the inmates must wait until Nov. 1, 2015, to file their petitions.

The vote came two months after the commission passed the so-called "Drugs Minus Two," an amendment to the sentencing code that lowered the federal guidelines for federal drug offenses two levels for defendants.

Such a reduction would reduce sentences about 25 months on average, according to the commission's recently updated estimate.

Any of the 46,290 federal prisoners eligible last year to petition for an earlier release would then have their cases decided by judges and probation officers on a case-by-case basis.

The commission unanimously rejected the Justice Department's proposal for "limited retroactivity," which would have excluded prisoners in higher criminal-history categories and those with sentencing enhancements for obstruction of justice, possession of a weapon or other uncharged offenses.

These limitations would have reduced the eligible prisoners to fewer than 20,000 inmates, according to data compiled by the Federal Defenders.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., responded to the vote by calling for the passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act.

Whereas the commission's vote only affected the guidelines, the bill Leahy supports would cut mandatory minimums in half, particularly for crack offenses criticized for disproportionally punishing black inmates.

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