By C.N. Staff Writer
In mid July President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 46 prisoners, many with drug trafficking charges. Fourteen of the commutations were inmates who were sentenced to life in prison. “These men and women were not hard criminals,” Obama said in a video announcement. “Their punishment did not fit the crime.”
The 46 sentence reductions announced Monday are the most presidential commutations in a single day since the Lyndon Johnson administration in the 1960s. So far he has commuted nearly 90 prisoners, more than the last four presidents combined.
During a speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the president spoke about the American justice system and how it needs reforming. He said, “There’s a long history of inequity in the criminal justice system in America…The eyes of more Americans have been opened to this truth, partly because of cameras, partly because of tragedy partly because the statistics can’t be ignored.”
Giving off statistics he said, the United States is home to 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners. The American incarceration rate is 4 times higher than China’s and higher than 35 top European countries combined.
Obama wrote a personal letter to each of the inmates he released. In one letter to a North Carolina inmate he wrote, “I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around. Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change.” Each of the 45 commuted sentences now expire November 10, 2015.
Obama has said reforming the complex U.S. criminal justice system to reduce the number of people serving long sentences for non-violent drug crimes is one of the top priorities for his remaining time in office. In his speech to the NAACP he said, “Violence in our communities is serious and historically violence in African American communities has been under policed.” The statistics on who gets incarcerated shows by a large margin disproportionately affects African American communities. African Americans and Latinos make up 35% of population, but 60% of inmates. One in every 35 African American men is incarcerated and 1 in every 88 Latino men is serving time right now. Among white men that number is one in 214 of white men.
Every year 80 billion dollars is spent to incarcerate inmates. Obama said, “For 80 billion dollars we could have universal pre-school for every 3 and 4 year old in America. For 80 billion dollars we could double the salary for every high school teacher in America. We could finance new roads, bridges, airports, job training programs.”
The commutations reflect just a small fraction of the more than 6,600 petitions submitted to the Justice Department since the administration announced its initiative last year. The Justice Department launched a program in April 2014 to systematically identify prisoners serving time for crimes they were sentenced for under laws that have since been changed to carry less severe punishments. Traditionally, presidents have granted pardons or commutations on a one-off basis.
Justice Department officials estimated the review would affect thousands, especially crack cocaine offenders sentenced when the drug still carried a sentence equivalent to someone caught with 100 times the same amount of powder cocaine.
Some lawyers representing prisoners have complained that the review process has been overwhelmed. The administration has asked Congress for more money for lawyers, and said it was committed to issuing more commutations over the next 18 months.
Obama signed legislation in 2010 to narrow the discrepancy in sentences for offenses involving crack and powder cocaine and the United States Sentencing Commission has revised guidelines for drug offenses, retroactively reducing sentences for more than 9,500 inmates, nearly three-quarters of them black or Hispanic.
Commutations reduce prison terms but do not overturn convictions, while presidential pardons, which do wipe away convictions, are generally given only to those who have already served their sentences.
In 1980 there were 500,000 people behind bars, but today there are 2.2 million. Obama said, “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off and we need to do something about it.”