President Obama shortened the sentences of 214 federal inmates last week, the largest number of commutations granted on a single day in more than a hundred years. Sixty-seven of the commutations were for life sentences, and the vast majority of the prisoners were incarcerated for non-violent, drug-related offenses.
Since 2014 the President has made addressing issues of criminal justice reform a top priority. In an effort to combat over-sentencing for non-violent offenses, he directed the Department of Justice to focus on clemency petitions for non-violent drug sentences that would carry shorter terms today than they did when these individuals were convicted. Obama’s goals for reform focus not only on shortening terms, but also on changing the entire nature of our penal system. For some individuals, Obama granted commutations on the condition of undergoing drug or counseling treatment, prioritizing personal reform over punishment.
This most recent act of the President has once again brought the need for Congressional criminal justice reform to the forefront of national conversation. White House Counsel to the President Neil Eggleston wrote, “While we continue to work to act on as many clemency applications as possible, only legislation can bring about lasting change to the federal system.” Despite efforts by the executive, bipartisan legislative reforms have mostly fallen flat in Congress.
According to the ACLU, the federal prison population has increased almost 790% since 1980. There are 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in the U.S., costing taxpayers almost $70 billion. The lengths of sentences have become egregious and devastating as well, with at least 3,278 people serving life sentences without parole for nonviolent crimes in 2012. In addition, communities of color are specifically targeted by these unnecessarily strict criminal sentences. A black person is almost 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person nationwide, and up to 15 times more likely to be arrested in some counties, despite the fact that white Americans have higher rates of drug use.
Obama has commuted a total of 562 sentences over the course of his presidency. According to the White House, this number now surpasses the commutations granted by the last nine presidents combined.