It took almost his entire presidency to get it rolling, but President Barack Obama will have ended his term granting more than 1,000 federal prisoners mercy from incredibly long federal sentences placed on them due to severe drug war laws.
Today, the president took to Facebook to announced another 79 commutations. He used the story of Ramona Brant, who was indicted and imprisoned for life over her relationship with a man who was involved in a drug ring. She was released back in February and filmed a video talking about her experiences earlier in the year.
Obama commented on Facebook today:
Ramona’s story should serve as a reminder to all of us that we need to reform the sentencing laws for drug crimes in this country. It makes no sense for a nonviolent drug offender to be serving decades, or sometimes life, in prison. That’s not serving taxpayers, and it’s not serving the public safety. Instead, it burdens our already overcrowded prisons. And it hurts families like Ramona’s.
Today, I commuted the sentences of 79 people like Ramona, men and women serving overly harsh and outdated sentences, most of them for low-level drug crimes. I’ve now granted over 1,000 commutations over the course of my presidency.
At the heart of America is the idea that we’re all imperfect. We all make mistakes. We have to take responsibility and learn from those mistakes. And we as a society have to make sure that people who do take responsibility for their mistakes are able to earn a second chance to contribute to our communities and our country. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do. Now it’s up to good minds on both sides of the aisle to come together to restore fairness in our criminal justice system, use our tax dollars more effectively, and give second chances to those who have earned them.
Today’s count puts the number at 1,023. The list of those granted commutations today can be read through here. As with previous grants, these people aren’t going to be released immediately. They’ll be getting out next year and some of them will be required to seek drug treatment as a condition of release.
There’s a push now to try to get the president to speed up the rate of commutations while there’s still time. As Reason has previously noted, President-Elect Donald Trump wants to install Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, a hardcore drug warrior, as attorney general.
Clemency Project 2014, the group of volunteer lawyers helping process requests for mercy, has determined that there’s more than 2,000 prisoners who likely qualify under the Department of Justice’s guidelines. Jacob Sullum calculated back in October that Obama could hit 1,500 commutations at this rate before his term is complete.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like a bipartisan sentencing reform bill hammered together earlier in the year is going anywhere. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would have made the Fair Sentencing Act—which reduced sentences for crack cocaine crimes to be closer to those for powder cocaine—retroactive. Families Against Mandatory Minimums calculated this law might have helped about 5,800 people currently in prison seek shorter sentences. These are some of the very people who are seeing their sentences commuted by the president.