President Obama commuted the sentences of 95 drug offenders Friday, more than double the number he granted this summer, in an effort to give relief to drug offenders who were harshly sentenced in the nation’s war on drugs.
It is the third time this year that the president has used his unique clemency power to release federal drug offenders, whose harsh sentences have contributed to the phenomenon of mass incarceration.
The commutations are a centerpiece of the president’s effort to make the most significant changes in the nation’s criminal justice system in decades. He and former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. have spoken passionately about the need to fix what they say is a broken system — one they argue has subjected too many nonviolent inmates to decades behind bars, disproportionately hurting minority communities.
“I commuted the sentences of 95 men and women who had served their debt to society, another step forward in upholding our ideals of justice and fairness,” Obama said.
One of the inmates Obama granted clemency was Sharanda Jones, a 48-year-old Texas woman who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for a single cocaine offense. She was a first-time, nonviolent offender.
The Washington Post highlighted Jones’s story in July as an example of the tens of thousands of inmates in crowded federal prisons who received severe mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses during the crack-cocaine epidemic. Jones has spent 16 years behind bars, leaving an 8-year-old daughter to grow up without her mother.
Her daughter, now 24, broke down in tears when she heard that her mother will be coming home April 16.
“I’m so happy,” said Clenesha Garland, who lives in Dallas. “This is the best Christmas present for the rest of my life.”
Brittany Byrd, the Dallas attorney who first heard of Jones’s case when she wrote about Jones for a law school class, filed the clemency petition two years ago that Obama signed.
“Yesterday, Sharanda was set to die in prison as a first-time nonviolent offender,” Byrd said. “The president literally saved her life. She has more than paid her debt to society and is truly deserving of the mercy she was given today.”
Byrd said she called Jones from her car with the news shortly before Obama made his announcement.
“You’re coming home!” she told Jones, who is in Carswell women’s prison in Fort Worth.
Byrd said Jones seemed in shock at first. She was quiet on the other end of the line and then started crying softly.
“Thank you, Jesus, thank you,” Jones said on the phone with her attorney. “It’s been so long.”
In spring 2014, then-Attorney General Holder — who once called the harsh mandatory-minimum drug sentences “draconian” — started an initiative to grant clemency to certain nonviolent drug offenders in federal prison.
To qualify, prisoners had to have served at least 10 years of their sentence, and have no significant criminal history and no connection to gangs, cartels or organized crime. They must have demonstrated good conduct in prison. And they also must be inmates who probably would have received a “substantially lower sentence” if convicted of the same offense today.
“This is precisely the kind of case for which our reform efforts are designed,” Holder said in an interview Friday about Jones’s commutation. “We must use our limited resources in more appropriate, more just ways. The president has acted in a significant way today. Now Congress must act and pass meaningful criminal justice reform legislation.”
Lawmakers are debating several bipartisan bills to change sentencing laws.
In his last news conference before leaving for Hawaii for the holidays, Obama said he supported the Senate bill on criminal justice reform and hoped the House would pass a similar piece of legislation.
“There have been sincere negotiations and efforts by Republicans and Democrats to create a criminal justice system that is more fair and even-handed,” Obama said. “There is a good bill in the Senate. My hope is that it gets to the floor and gets paired with a bill in the House.”
After Holder announced the new criteria last year to open up the clemency process to more federal inmates, a massive number — about 33,000 — applied for relief.
“The response was overwhelming and enthusiastic and elevated the level of hope in prison that they may not actually die there,” said Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
But it also created a logistical nightmare for a new group of private attorneys and law school students that had formed, with the encouragement of the Justice Department, to help find inmates who met the criteria set out by Holder. The group, called Clemency Project 2014, includes Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
The extensive number of applications and the complicated review process by the outside lawyers, the Justice Department and the White House has slowed the effort, advocates say.
It took about a year for the group to get organized and train lawyers for the massive effort, included locating old legal documents, contacting prosecutors and judges who imposed the sentences, and trying to get pre-sentencing reports and sentencing transcripts, some of which had not been transcribed.
Of the 33,000 inmates who applied and asked for help from attorneys, the clemency project weeded out about 18,000 applications that did not meet the criteria, according to Cynthia W. Roseberry, the project manager.
James E. Felman, an attorney and one of the leaders of CP14 who visited prisons to help find inmates who met the criteria, said the process is much more streamlined now. The group of lawyers has sent 263 petitions to the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney to be considered.
Of the commutations Obama granted on Friday, 27 were prepared by pro-bono lawyers across the country and students in 24 law schools working with the clemency project.
“While the clemency initiative is just one prong in the larger effort to reform sentencing practices, it is one to which we are strongly committed,” Yates said in a statement Friday.
Yates then sends the petitions and her recommendations to White House Counsel Neil Eggleston. More than 9,000 clemency petitions are pending, either at the Justice Department or the White House.
“It remains the case that with a year left in his term, the president has already commuted the sentences of more individuals than the past five presidents combined, and we expect that the president will grant more commutations and pardons to deserving individuals in his final year in office,” Eggleston said Friday.
But several advocates interviewed Friday said that the comparison with other presidents is not a meaningful one because no other president has launched a clemency initiative to grant an early release to drug offenders who meet criteria laid out by the Justice Department.
NYU Law Professor Rachel Barkow, an advocate for clemency reform, called the current clemency process with so many prisoner petitions backlogged “a disaster.”
“Once the president lays out the criteria for the cases he wants to grant clemency, the measure of success for that program is: Have you processed all the people who meet those criteria?” she said.
By the end of this year, Obama will have commuted the sentences of 184 federal inmates.
“American presidents have had the power to show mercy since the founding of our republic,” said Stewart, of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “President Obama is the first president in decades to use it as the Founders intended. For that reason, we commend him for showing more mercy than his predecessors. But his work is not done.”