A “Nation of Second Chances”: Obama Cuts Prison Sentences

President Obama has made history again! On August 3, he reduced the sentences of 214 federal inmates, including 67 life sentences. This marked the largest single-day grant of commutations since at least 1900. It also raised Obama’s total commutations to 562 – more than the past 9 presidents combined.

The commuted inmates included Ronald Evans, who was sentenced to life in prison as a teen for his role in a small drug distribution ring. They included Ramona Brant, who was given a life sentence for failing to report her drug dealing boyfriend. And they included Norman Brown, who was sentenced to life in prison at 22 for conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

Identifying candidates for clemency was a “laborious process”. In 2014, the Obama administration developed expanded eligibility criteria, prioritizing non-violent offenders who: served over 10 years, behaved well in prison, lack close ties to gangs or drug cartels, and “would have received shorter sentences if…convicted a few years later”. At least three levels of lawyers at the Justice Department and White House then reviewed each applicant against these criteria. Successful applicants were sent to the President for approval, while unsuccessful applicants were often given additional drug treatment, educational programming, or counseling.

So what is the motivation behind Obama’s mercy? It is partly philosophical. The president believes that inmates’ sentences should accurately reflect their crimes. Additionally, he feels that inmates who have “demonstrated the potential to turn [their] lives around” and the “capacity to make good choices” deserve a second chance.

But there are also practical considerations. Overly onerous sentencing requirements “have put tens of thousands behind bars for far too long”, resulting in “incarceration rates unseen in other developed countries”.  The cost to the justice and penal systems is immense. Hence, commutations can reduce prison overcrowding and “save taxpayers like you money”. They also reunite families, helping to break the cycle of incarceration.

Still, criticism abounds. Some have accused Obama of being “soft on crime”. They fear recidivism (although most commuted inmates will remain supervised following release). Others believe Obama has not gone far enough. The Clemency Resource Center at NYU says that more than 11,000 petitions are pending and 1,500 meet the administration’s criteria. Attorney Deborah Leff maintains that some inmates deserve pardons, allowing them vote and “apply for jobs without criminal records”.

Even Obama acknowledges the weaknesses of his clemency initiative. “Despite these important efforts,” he says, “only legislation can bring about lasting change to the federal system”. For this reason, “it is critical that both the House and the Senate continue to cooperate on a bipartisan basis to get a criminal justice reform bill to the President’s desk”.

Want to help incarcerated individuals get a “second chance” and become “valued and contributing members of society”? Please contact the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, or our partner, Rosebud Advocacy.