President Barack Obama offered 102 federal inmates the chance to leave prison early, wielding his clemency powers Thursday as part of his end-of-term push to spur action on criminal justice reform.
The latest round of commutations brings to 774 the number of sentences Obama has shortened, including 590 this year. The White House said it’s more than the previous 11 presidents put together. Thirty-four of the new recipients had been serving life sentences.
Almost all the prisoners had been convicted of nonviolent crimes related to cocaine, methamphetamine or other drugs, although some were also serving time for firearms violations in connection to drug trafficking, possession or sales. Almost all are men, though they represent a diverse cross-section of the country geographically.
“The vast majority of today’s grants were for individuals serving unduly harsh sentences for drug-related crimes under outdated sentencing laws,” said Neil Eggleston, Obama’s White House counsel. He said Obama would continue considering clemency applications throughout the remaining months of his presidency.
Still, Obama’s order doesn’t set all the prisoners free right away. Many of those receiving commutations won’t see their sentences end until October 2018, long into the next president’s term.
Arlana Doris Moore, of Grand Falls, Texas, had been serving a life sentence plus 10 years of supervised release after being convicted of conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine and possession of chemicals used to make the drug. Moore’s sentence will now expire in late 2018, on the condition that she enrolls in a residential drug treatment program.
Obama’s bid to lessen the burden on nonviolent offenders reflects his long-stated view that decades of onerous sentencing requirements put tens of thousands behind bars for far too long. Obama has used the aggressive pace of his commutations to increase pressure on Congress to pass a broader fix while using his executive powers to address individual cases where possible.
Yet Obama’s calls for greater clemency have occasionally drawn criticism from opponents who say he’s too soft on crime. Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, has warned Americans that their safety could be at risk because of Obama’s move to set prisoners free ahead of schedule.
Though both parties in Congress have called for a criminal justice overhaul, momentum has mostly petered out, creating dim prospects for a legislative breakthrough during Obama’s final months. The inability of Republicans and Democrats in Congress to find consensus even on an issue they agree needs fixing reflects the charged political climate of the election year.
Obama has been calling for years for phasing out strict sentences for drug offenses, arguing they lead to excessive punishment and incarceration rates unseen in other developed countries. With Obama’s support, the Justice Department in recent years directed prosecutors to rein in the use of harsh mandatory minimums.
The Obama administration has also expanded criteria for inmates applying for clemency, prioritizing nonviolent offenders who have behaved well in prison, aren’t closely tied to gangs and would have received shorter sentences if they had been convicted a few years later.
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.