President Barack Obama on Wednesday commuted the prison sentences of 61 drug offenders. Obama met for lunch Wednesday with people whose sentences were previously commuted. (  AP)

President Obama commuted the sentences of 61 inmates Wednesday, part of his ongoing effort to give relief to prisoners who were harshly sentenced in the nation’s war on drugs.

More than one-third of the inmates were serving life sentences. Obama has granted clemency to 248 federal inmates, including Wednesday’s commutations. White House officials said that Obama will continue granting clemency to inmates who meet certain criteria set out by the Justice Department throughout his last year. The president has vowed to change how the criminal justice system treats nonviolent drug offenders.

Since the Obama administration launched a high-profile clemency initiative, thousands of more inmates have applied. Another 9,115 clemency petitions from prisoners are still pending.

“The power to grant pardons and commutations . . . embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws,” Obama wrote in a letter to the 61 inmates whose sentences he commuted.

But sentencing reform advocates said that many more prisoners are disappointed they have not yet heard from the president about their petitions.

“Sixty-one grants, with over 9,000 petitions pending, is not an accomplishment to brag about,” said Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and an advocate for inmates petitioning for clemency. “I know some of those still waiting, men who were grievously over-sentenced, who have reformed themselves, and never had a record of violence. My heart breaks for them, as their hope for freedom — a hope created by the members of this administration — slips away.”

The Justice Department’s former pardon attorney, Deborah Leff, stepped down in January because she was frustrated by a lack of resources to process clemency petitions and recommend which ones should be sent to the White House. The new pardon attorney, longtime federal prosecutor Bob Zauzmer, said that his goal — whether he gets more needed resources or not — is “to look at every single petition that comes in and make sure an appropriate recommendation is made to the president.”

The White House has argued that broader criminal justice reform is needed beyond the clemency program.

“Despite the progress we have made, it is important to remember that clemency is nearly always a tool of last resort that can help specific individuals, but does nothing to make our criminal justice system on the whole more fair and just,” White House counsel W. Neil Eggleston said. “Clemency of individual cases alone cannot fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies.”

Among those granted clemency Wednesday was Byron Lamont McDade, who had an unusual advocate in his corner. The judge who sent McDade to prison for more than two decades for his role in a Washington-area cocaine conspiracy personally pleaded McDade’s case for early release.

U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman said McDade’s 27-year punishment was “disproportionate” to his crime, but that he had no choice but to impose the harsh prison term in 2002 because of then-mandatory sentencing guidelines. Over the years, the judge had urged the Bureau of Prisons and the White House to reduce McDade’s sentence to 15 years. He received no response until now.

“I have not lost hope that justice can still be done for Mr. McDade,” Friedman wrote in February 2015 as part of McDade’s petition to Obama.

Obama met Wednesday with seven former inmates who received clemency from either him or former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

“They’re Americans who’d been serving time on the kind of outdated sentences that are clogging up our jails and burning through our tax dollars,” Obama wrote on Facebook before meeting the inmates. “Simply put, their punishments didn’t fit the crime.”

The White House will hold an event called Life After Clemency on Thursday that will include former inmates and their attorneys, along with some prison reform advocates.

In spring 2014, then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — who called mandatory-minimum drug sentences “draconian” — launched the clemency 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.

In an emotional meeting late Wednesday afternoon, Holder met with one of the inmates freed under the clemency initiative, former Texas prisoner Sharanda Jones, and her attorney, Brittany Byrd, who worked for years to draw attention to Jones’s case. Jones, 48, was sentenced to life in prison without parole for a single cocaine offense. She was a first-time nonviolent offender, and she was granted clemency by Obama in December.

Clenesha Garland is holding on to the possibility of clemency for her mother, who is serving a life sentence in Texas for a nonviolent drug offense. As she waits, Garland puts herself in her own kind of prison, living a life without her mother. (Nicki DeMarco, Nikki Kahn and Sari Horwitz/The Washington Post)

Holder had spent his last year as attorney general setting up the clemency initiative and studying the statistics of inmates who were given severe sentences during the nation’s drug war. But he had never met an inmate whose life had been changed by his policy.

Holder walked into his law firm conference room where Jones was waiting.

“This is pretty amazing,” he said, giving her a hug.

“I am so happy to be here,” said Jones, who spent 17 years behind bars, leaving an 8-year-old daughter to grow up without her mother. “I feel like I won the lottery, and not just the lottery, but the powerball. Thank you so much. I am so grateful.”

For nearly an hour, Holder listened to Jones talk about her years behind bars. He peppered her with questions about life after prison: What was it like when she first heard the president was granting her clemency? What was it like to come out of prison?

“It shouldn’t have come down to this,” Holder said, referring to Jones’s many years behind bars and the life sentence she had faced. “Our system should have been better, more fair. When you look at what you did and what potentially you were facing, that’s not justice.”

After being sentenced to 35 years in prison for a nonviolent drug offense, Donel Clark was granted clemency by President Obama in March 2015. Now living in Fort Worth, Clark is adjusting to life on the outside. (Editor's note: This video was first published Oct. 8, 2015.) (Nicki DeMarco, Nikki Kahn and Sari Horwitz/The Washington Post)

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