By Phillip Smith
President Barack Obama today commuted the prison sentences of eight drug offenders and issued pardons for 12 other people who had already finished their sentences. The commutations were for people imprisoned for crack cocaine and methamphetamine offenses.
No one is walking out of prison today, but all eight had their sentences reduced to lengths that will allow them to walk out at some point in the next year.
Among those who got commutations is Sidney Earl Johnson of Mobile, Alabama, who has been serving a life sentence for crack cocaine offenses since 1994. Another is Larry Naylor of Memphis, who has been serving a life sentence for 50 grams of crack since 1997.
Obama pardoned another 12 people who had already served their time for offenses---sometimes decades in the past. Four of those pardoned were also drug offenders.
Obama had not been particularly prolific with his exercise of the commutation power---he had only commuted 10 sentences in his first six years in office---but earlier this year, the administration announced new, more expansive clemency guidelines in a bid to decrease the number of people imprisoned under draconian drug war statutes.
At the time, the White House said the new rules could result in "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of people being granted clemency. This is a start.
See the complete list of pardons and commutations here.
Today President Obama commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates convicted of non-violent drug offenses. Deputy Attorney General James Cole released a statement saying that the eight individuals "were sentenced under outdated and unfair laws," and "their punishments did not fit their crime."
This year, Attorney General Eric Holder has made a number of forceful public statements against mass incarceration in the U.S., promising significant rollback of mandatory minimums and harsh sentencing guidelines. The Administration also promised improvements in the commutation process. Yet, despite his administration's declared support for substantive criminal justice reform, until now Obama has used his power to grant clemency less frequently than nearly all other U.S. Presidents.
Mr. 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.
"It's wonderful news that Obama has granted clemency to these individuals. We hope this is the just the beginning of the President using his executive powers to right the wrongs of the criminal justice system," 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. "I hope governors with the same power at the state level follow his lead and reunite more families."
There is much legislation that the next Congress must move forward with if the country is to address its mass incarceration problem. Chief among them is the Smarter Sentencing Act. This bipartisan legislation would cut mandatory minimum sentences, expand the "safety valve" to give judges more discretion in sentencing, and would make the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive.
"The President's actions today are welcome, but they are nowhere near enough," said Michael Collins, policy manager at DPA's office of national affairs. "We need a more wide-reaching clemency project and we need Congress to move quickly on sentencing reform when it comes back in January. It's time to rectify the US's embarrassing record on mass incarceration."