Obama Cites Cocaine Law Disparity in Commuting Sentences

U.S. President Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama. Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of eight people convicted and sentenced on crack cocaine offenses, saying their prison terms were too long as a result of disparities in the law.

Each of the eight men and women has served more than 15 years in federal prison. Obama cited the differences in sentences between crack and powder cocaine offenses, a gap reduced under the Fair Sentencing Act that he signed in 2010.

“If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” Obama said in a statement. “Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.”

Obama also granted pardons to 13 people who already served terms for drug-related convictions.

Three of the offenders who received commutations were profiled in an American Civil Liberties Union report that highlighted people serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses.

“This is one important step toward undoing the damage that extreme sentencing has done to so many in our criminal justice system,” Vanita Gupta, ACLU deputy legal director, said in a statement about the president’s actions. “We hope the president will continue to exercise his clemency powers and lend his support to systemic reform that will make our criminal justice system smarter, fairer, and more humane.”

Pardons Record

Obama issued only one commutation previously. The 13 pardons also break a pattern for the president, who before today had granted 39 pardons, according to Justice Department figures. That’s the fewest by a president in recent history, according to the ACLU. By comparison, former President George W. Bush had granted 62 pardons by the end of his fifth year in office.

Obama in 2010 signed legislation narrowing the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. While blacks accounted for 30 percent of crack use, they made up 82 percent of the convictions, the Justice Department said.

A 1986 law had created sentencing rules where it took possession of 100 times more powder cocaine than crack cocaine to trigger a five-to-10 year mandatory minimum sentence, according to Senator Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, chief sponsor of the bill. The 2010 legislation reduced the ratio to 18-to-1.

“When one looks at the racial implications of the crack-powder disparity, it has bred disrespect for our criminal justice system,” Attorney General Eric Holder told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in June 2009.

Holder later told the U.S. Sentencing Commission that the revised sentencing policies should be retroactive. The Obama administration is also pursuing less-harsh sentences for some non-violent drug offenders, a concept also supported by Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, and other lawmakers.

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