President Obama on Wednesday cut short the prison sentences of eight federal drug offenders, part of an administration initiative to foster equity in criminal sentencing.
Four of the offenders had been condemned to life in prison. All will be released next year.
The commutations are part of an administration push to increase the number of clemency requests it reviews from low-level, non-violent inmates — many of whom are serving long sentences based on tough federal sentencing guidelines that have since changed.
Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said the eight people met the criteria laid out by the Justice Department, which includes the requirements that they must be low-level offenders with no significant criminal history or ties to gangs, have served at least 10 years in prison and would have gotten lesser punishments had they been sentenced today.
“For our criminal justice system to be effective, it needs to not only be fair, but it also must be perceived as being fair,” Cole said in a statement. “The Justice Department will continue to identify applicants whom we can recommend to the president for commutation.”
Cole said the individuals pardoned had been sentenced under “outdated and unfair laws.”
The administration has long pushed to reduce discrepancies in sentences given to non-violent drug offenders. In 2010, Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparities between offenses involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine. However, thousands of people sentenced before the change are still serving federally mandated sentences for trafficking or the intent to traffic crack cocaine. Obama has called sentences under those guidelines “unduly harsh.”
Obama, who has been criticized for his reluctance to grant clemency, has now commuted the sentences of 18 people.
In addition to the eight commutations, Obama on Wednesday granted pardons to 12 people, including an Illinois man who operated an unregistered distilling apparatus, a Colorado man who filed a false tax return, a Pennsylvania woman convicted of conspiring to manufacture and distribute methamphetamine and a Colorado man convicted of violating the Archeological Resources Protection Act.
Last December, he cut short the sentences of eight people and pardoned 13.
The White House said that 6,561 federal inmates petitioned for clemency in the 2014 fiscal year, compared with 2,370 the previous year.
White House officials said the eight people whose sentences were truncated Wednesday would have been sentenced to less time in prison if their cases were tried today for reasons that include a U.S. Sentencing Commission decision to reduce sentences for defendants in many drug cases and changes to federal sentencing guidelines that made many of them advisory rather than mandatory.
A number of the defendants were sentenced for possession or intent to distribute cocaine base or methamphetamine, substances that had mandatory minimum sentences.
Some observers downplayed the significance of Wednesday’s moves. “What that tells us is, if there’s a big change coming it hasn’t come yet,” said Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas who helped screen applicants for the expanded clemency program.
Osler said it typically takes years to get a final ruling on a clemency petition, meaning that many of the people who applied to have their sentences shortened this year will not know the outcome of their cases for some time. The Justice Department has said it is reassigning dozens of lawyers to its pardons office to handle the influx of requests.
“This is a thimbleful out of a river of shame,” Osler said, “but it’s important that that focus is gradually being revealed.”