President Obama granted clemency to another 102 inmates Thursday as he continued to release federal inmates serving long prison terms for nonviolent drug offenses.
Obama has now commuted the sentences of 774 federal inmates, more than the previous 11 presidents combined. With 590 commutations this year, he has commuted the most individuals’ sentences in one year in U.S. history, White House officials said.
They said Obama will continue granting commutations to federal drug offenders through the remainder of his time in office.
“Beyond the statistics, though, are stories of individuals who have overcome the longest of odds to earn this second chance,” White House Counsel W. Neil Eggleston said. “The individuals receiving commutation today are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, and in some cases grandparents. Today, they and their loved ones share the joy of knowing that they will soon be reunited.”
One of the inmates granted clemency was Ricky Minor, 53, who has been serving a mandatory sentence of life without parole since 2001 for attempting to manufacture methamphetamine.
“Ricky Minor was supposed to die in prison because he committed a nonviolent drug offense — a punishment far too harsh for the crime,” said Emma Andersson, a staff lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union Criminal Law Reform Project who was Minor’s attorney. “More than 15 years after Ricky was sent to prison forever, President Obama has given him a chance to rejoin his family and rebuild a life ravaged by the failed war on drugs.”
While in prison, Minor earned his GED and took classes in computer skills, business, real estate and accounting.
“Thanks to President Obama, I now have the chance to make my family proud of me, earn pride in myself, and be a person in society who is helpful and useful,” Minor said. “I have felt my life wasting away inside of this place, and I know I’m capable of more. I haven’t been able to hug my daughter as a free man since she was 7 years old. She’s an adult now, and I am overcome with happiness that I won’t miss any more of her life.”
Over the past three months, Obama has significantly increased the number of commutations granted under an initiative launched in April 2014 to provide relief to drug offenders who were not convicted of violent crimes and who would be sentenced to far less time under today’s drug laws.
Sentencing reform advocates have urged the Justice Department to move more quickly to review the thousands of clemency requests that have poured in from individual prisoners and from Clemency Project 2014, a large group of lawyers across the country working pro bono to represent the inmates and help them prepare petitions.
Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates said Thursday that the Justice Department “has made great progress reviewing applications.”
Officials, including Robert Zauzmer, who was named U.S. pardon attorney in February, have credited the increased pace of petitions being sent to the White House partly to a new, streamlined process of prioritizing and reviewing each petition.
Kevin Ring, vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group that has pushed for sentencing reform and clemency for drug offenders for more than 20 years, praised Obama for “doing the right thing.”
“We’ve known for quite a while that too many low-level offenders were getting absurdly long sentences,” Ring said. “To see some finally getting fairer sentences is exciting.”
But he and other prison reform advocates called on Congress to pass legislation to undo laws that allow mandatory sentencing to continue.
“President Obama has the power to fix past mistakes, but only Congress can prevent future ones,” Ring said.
Several criminal justice reforms bill with bipartisan support have been introduced in Congress, but none has passed.