Obama Cut 46 Prisoners’ Sentences, but That’s Still Just a Drop in the Bucket

The commutations are the latest development in the president’s push for criminal justice reform.
President Obama announced 46 commutations in a White House video on Monday. (Photo: 'The White House Blog')
Jul 13, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

On Monday, President Barack Obama commuted or shortened the sentences of 46 federal prisoners convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. That’s more than twice the number of commuted sentences he granted in March. In a video, Obama noted that most of these prisoners would have already served their time if they had been sentenced under today’s laws. It was a reminder to viewers of the increasingly outdated mode of assigning harsh, lengthy sentences to nonviolent drug offenders, a practice that has helped give the U.S. the dubious distinction of having more incarcerated citizens than any other country.

“These men and women were not hardened criminals, but the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years,” Obama said. “So their punishments didn’t fit the crime.”

The prisoners came from 18 states. Most had been convicted of having, dealing, or intending to deal cocaine and crack cocaine. Four of the commuted sentences involved possession of a firearm.

So, Why Should You Care? There are more than 200,000 people in federal prison, and more than half of them are serving time for drug offenses. When it comes to clemency applications—that is, applications filed by or on behalf of prisoners seeking to shorten their sentence—the president has broad power to hasten their release. Yet, historically, presidents have hesitated to use that authority generously, mainly out of fear of being perceived as soft on crime.

Obama, however, is leading a bipartisan conversation about how to reform America’s criminal justice system. That political climate clearly played into his decision: “Right now, with our overall crime rate and incarceration rate both falling, we’re at a moment when some good people in both parties…are coming together around some ideas to make the system work smarter,” Obama said.

While Congress has stalled the passage of bills such as the Smarter Sentencing Act—a bipartisan effort to decrease the country’s 2.2 million prison and jail population—presidential clemency power is a valuable tool. Still, these piecemeal commutations are small compared with the overall federal prison population, according to Jeremy Haile, federal advocacy counsel for research and advocacy group The Sentencing Project.

“In terms of a big problem, it’s not having an impact,” Haile told TakePart earlier this year. “It’s still just a fraction of the number of people who have petitioned for clemency.” Haile noted that while Obama is on pace to commute more sentences than his predecessors, he has also received far more clemency petitions than any other president.

Criminal justice reform is a clear priority for the Obama administration. Just this week, in addition to the commutations, Obama will address his top priorities for criminal justice reform in Philadelphia before the NAACP’s annual conference. On Thursday in Oklahoma, he will become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. In February, Obama expressed his support for the Smarter Sentencing Act’s goal of reducing the mandatory minimum sentences that have landed tens of thousands of drug offenders behind bars, sometimes for decades. Then, in March, the president outlined his vision for mending the rift between black and Latino communities and law enforcement, the result of the convening of a police-reform task force created by an executive order in December.