This week President Obama commuted the sentences of 61 drug offenders who were imprisoned under what the President said were unnecessarily harsh drug law penalties.
Of those 61, the White House reported that 21 of them had been sentenced to life terms.
The commutations are part of a larger effort to reduce the number of Americans who are incarcerated. In particular, President Obama has said he wants to focus on freeing folks who have been locked up for non-violent, drug-related crimes.
Most of the inmates whose sentences were shortened this week will be released at the end of July. Some will have to wait until next March.
Obama has now commuted 248 sentences during his time in office. That’s significantly more than the past six presidents combined.
The majority of these commutations have been given to what the White House describes as “individuals serving years in prison under outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws.” Most of those outdated laws are drug laws.
Obama’s efforts to commute sentences of drug offenders is part of a project he started in 2014 called the Clemency Project 2014.
Back when it was first started, Obama promised he’d use this project to let 10,000 people out of prison.
The Clemency Project was primarily designed to help prisoners whose sentences would be shorter and less severe had they been arrested today. And anybody serving time for breaking drug laws that have changed since they were originally arrested were encouraged to apply for a commutation.
Meanwhile, a group of lawyers was formed to help complete the entire process.
Now, two years later, Obama’s only commuted 248 sentences. That’s only 2.48 percent of what he said he’d do.
At the beginning of the year pardon attorney Deborah Leff, who’d been put in charge of the program, resigned from her post.
Her letter of resignation seems to reveal a lot about the degree to which Obama’s Administration committed itself to the goals and promises of the Clemency Project.
Here’s what she had to say:
“I fully support and admire the Administration’s groundbreaking and much-needed launch of the Clemency Initiative and the possibility of justice it brings to so many deserving people.”
“But . . . asking us to address the petitions of nearly 10,000 individuals with so few attorneys and support staff, means that the requests of thousands of petitioners seeking justice will lie unheard.”
Many activists are concerned that Obama’s inability to follow through on the promises he made during the Clemency Project is a missed opportunity to repair some of the damage caused by the war on drugs.