President Obama on Thursday commuted long sentences being served by eight drug defendants whose crimes, were they committed today, would have led to much lighter punishment. Although significant to those eight, the move is largely symbolic given the thousands of similarly sentenced people—mostly black males—serving time in the nation’s prisons for low-level drug offenses.
The commutations opened a major new front in the administration’s efforts to curb soaring taxpayer spending on prisons and to help correct what it has portrayed as inequality in the justice system.
In a statement, Mr. Obama said that each of the eight men and women had been sentenced under what is now recognized as an “unfair system,” including a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses that was significantly reduced by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.
“If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” Mr. Obama said. “Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.”
The decision also follows a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union condemning the nation’s policy of harsh punishment for minor crimes, and the absurdity of people being sentenced to life terms for such minor offenses as shoplifting.
Attorney General Eric Holder had earlier ordered federal prosecutors to be more circumspect in how they presented drug cases to avoid triggering harsh mandatory sentencing measures for undeserving crimes. But the Los Angeles Times put Thursday’s announcement into perspective:
Thursday’s commutations involved prisoners who already had served at least 15 years in prison. Six had been sentenced to life and several had become the focus of considerable publicity about their plight.
Prisoner advocates welcomed the announcement but said that roughly 7,000 imprisoned crack users or dealers would be free if they had been sentenced after the 2010 law.
Obama has been more reluctant than recent predecessors to use his constitutional right to grant clemency. He previously had commuted only one sentence in his five years in office and has mostly confined himself to pardoning people who have already served their sentences. According to Justice Department statistics, Obama had received 8,576 petitions for clemency by Dec. 1.
“Considering in his first five years in office he granted only one commutation, I suppose we should be thrilled that he granted eight,” said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “But considering the number of people in prison who are serving excessive sentences, this is a drop in the bucket.”