Obama Commutes 61 Prisoners’ Sentences, Dines With Ex-Convicts

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President Barack Obama arrives to a roundtable event with formerly incarcerated people who have received commutations on March 30, 2016, in Washington.

Photographer: Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images
  • White House still hopes for change to U.S. sentencing laws
  • Obama has commuted more sentences than previous six presidents

President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 61 federal prisoners Wednesday and went to lunch with seven former inmates who were released after having their sentences shortened -- examples, Obama said, of the importance of second chances.

The president’s latest commutations and his impromptu meeting with former drug offenders in Washington were meant to draw attention to his proposal to overhaul the U.S. criminal justice system and reduce mandatory punishments for non-violent criminals. That effort has stalled as Congress has focused on a Supreme Court vacancy and the 2016 elections.

"You’ve got people sitting around this table who are now attorneys themselves," Obama said of his lunch companions. "This is an example of what we mean when we talk about second chances."

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Wednesday that he remains "cautiously optimistic" that an overhaul can still happen during Obama’s presidency.

Obama has shortened the sentences of 248 people during his presidency, mostly non-violent drug offenders -- more than the previous six presidents combined, according to the White House. More than 90 of those were life sentences, the White House said.

Obama said at a drug abuse summit Tuesday in Atlanta that the U.S. should treat drug addiction as a disease instead of a crime, and emphasize treatment over incarceration for non-violent drug offenses.

“For too long we’ve seen the problem of drug abuse generally in our society through the lens of the criminal justice system,” Obama said in Atlanta.

The seven former prisoners who attended the lunch with Obama at Busboys & Poets restaurant in Washington included some whose sentences were commuted by presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The restaurant’s owner, Andy Shallal, advocated for a Washington law that forbids most employers from asking job applicants whether they have been arrested.

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