Yesterday, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 61 people incarcerated in federal prison for drug offenses. This follows the commutation of 95 people in December, 2015, 45 people in July of that year, 22 people in March 2015, and 8 people in December of 2014. All of those who received commutations today were serving time in prison for nonviolent drug offenses, and many were victims of the disparity in sentencing between crack and cocaine.
President Obama has been under significant public pressure from advocacy groups and family members of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses who are serving long, mandatory minimum sentences.
"The President is using his constitutional power, but he can only do so much," said Michael Collins, deputy director at DPA's office of national affairs. "There is legislation in the Senate that would reduce mandatory minimums and have a greater impact on the prison population, and Leader McConnell needs to bring the bill up for a vote."
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, spearheaded by Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), includes reductions in mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, an expansion of the federal "safety valve" (which allows judges to use their discretion to sentence people below statutory mandatory minimums), and will expand prison programming and early release, among other things. A similar bill, championed by Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), was introduced in the House. Both bills have strong bipartisan support, and are awaiting floor action.
In the House, Paul Ryan, has promised that there will be a vote soon on criminal justice reform legislation. McConnell is yet to commit to action.
As the nation is calling for a more compassionate response to people struggling with addictions, advocates are pushing the Obama administration and Congress to right the wrongs of failed drug war tactics.
"I am gratified that President Obama continues to use his powers to release individuals who deserve to have a second chance at life," said Anthony Papa, media relations manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, who was granted clemency in New York State in 1997 after serving 12 years under the notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws for a first-time nonviolent drug offense. "These horrific drug sentences have destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives, overwhelmingly people of color, and it's time Congress righted these wrongs. We need to bring our brothers and sisters home now."