President Obama on Monday commuted the sentences of 46 drug offenders, more than double the number of commutations he granted earlier this year, as part of his effort to reform the criminal justice system.
In a Facebook video posted Monday, the president said the 46 prisoners had served sentences disproportionate to their crimes.
“These men and women were not hardened criminals, but the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years,” he said. “I believe that at its heart, America is a nation of second chances. And I believe these folks deserve their second chance.” He noted that in his letters to them, he urged that they make different choices now that their sentences had been commuted.
Monday’s commutations mark the most in a single day since the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Obama now has commuted 89 sentences, surpassing the combined number granted by presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Of the 89 commutations Obama has granted while in office, 76 have gone to nonviolent drug offenders who met criteria set by the Justice Department last year.The commutations come as the administration is working to reduce costs and overcrowding in federal prisons and to provide relief to inmates who were sentenced under the harsh guidelines put in place in the late 1980s as the country was grappling with the crack cocaine epidemic.
One of the inmates who received clemency was Katina Stuckey Smith of Montrose, Ga., the mother of Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. She was sentenced in July 2000 t0 292 months for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and crack.
“Right now, with our overall crime rate and incarceration rate both falling, we’re at a moment where some good people in both parties, Republicans and Democrats, and folks all across the country are coming together around ideas to make the system work smarter, make it work better,” Obama said in the video. “And I’m determined to do my part wherever I can. That’s one of the reasons why I’m commuting the sentences of 46 prisoners who were convicted many years, or in some cases decades, ago.”
Since the Obama administration announced last year that it would grant clemency to nonviolent drug offenders, more than 35,000 inmates, or about 17 percent of the federal prison population, have applied for early release.
In December, Obama granted clemency to eight federal drug offenders, four of whom had been sentenced to life in prison. In March, the president commuted the sentences of 22 drug offenders. At that time, White House counsel W. Neil Eggleston said that under current sentencing guidelines, many of the individuals granted clemency would have already served their time in prison.
The latest round of commutations comes before Obama is set to visit a federal prison in Oklahoma on Thursday, the first such visit by a sitting U.S. president to a federal prison. He also will address his administration’s effort to overhaul the criminal justice system in a speech Tuesday at the NAACP’s annual conference in Philadelphia.
Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), who has co-authored a bill with Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) to reform federal sentencing laws, said in an interview that the commutations “try to modify the damaging effects of draconian minimums that violate common sense,” but are not a substitute for legislation.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the fact that tens of thousands of federal prisoners have petitioned for clemency, demonstrates “how important it is for Congress to take action, that congressional action in this case could be much broader in terms of delivering the kind of justice and implementing the kind of reforms the president believes is long overdue.”
The inmates granted clemency were mostly men and include 14 people who were given life sentences, such as Larry Darnell Belcher, of Martinsville, Va., who was convicted in 1997 of possession with intent to distribute cocaine and marijuana. The inmate who had been in prison the longest was Dunning Wells of Fort Myers, Fla., who was sentenced to 502 months in February 1992 for unlawful possession of a firearm, distribution of cocaine and possession of a firearm during a drug trafficking crime.
One of the inmates, Douglas M. Lindsay II, of Newberry, S.C., was a first-time, nonviolent offender. Before being sentenced to life in prison in 1996, he was an Army veteran who worked with adults with mental disabilities. Lindsay sold crack, according to Sarah Godfrey of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, “in what he now recognizes as a misguided attempt to finance his college education.”
First, the inmates will be sent to halfway houses to help begin their transition.
They are set to be released from the custody of the Bureau of Prisons on Nov. 10. Although advocates for inmates have praised the efforts by the Obama administration to provide relief to prisoners who received severe sentences, they also have complained that the extensive number of applications from prisoners and the complicated review process have slowed the effort.
The Justice Department and the White House are being aided by Clemency Project 2014, comprised of four groups that have brought lawyers together from across the country to work pro bono to read prisoner applications and to help prepare deserving petitions to be sent to the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney. From there, petitions with recommendations go to Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates’s office. Yates then sends petitions with her recommendations to Eggleston at the White House, who recommends deserving candidates to Obama.
Lawmakers in Congress are debating a bipartisan effort to change sentencing laws.
“We made a terrible mistake 30 years ago when we created the laws that sent these men and women away for so long,” said Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “What the president did for them today is its own form of justice, leavened with mercy.” But, she said, the president can only do so much:
“Ultimately, no number of commutations can mitigate the continuing impact of excessively harsh drug mandatory minimums, which is why we need to reform sentencing policies.”