Obama Orders 98 Prisoner Releases, Most Set Free Over a Year

  • Pace of commutations increases as president’s term winds down
  • Obama’s clemency efforts provoke complaints on right and left

President Barack Obama waves as he walks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Oct. 11, 2016.

President Barack Obama has now ordered more prisoners released early from federal penitentiaries in a single year than any of his predecessors, after commuting the sentences of 98 people on Thursday.

The announcement of the release of mostly non-violent drug offenders brings to 872 the number of people whose sentences Obama has shortened, with clemency granted to 688 people this year alone. That’s more than the past 11 presidents combined.

“While there has been much attention paid to the number of commutations issued by the President, at the core, we must remember that there are personal stories behind these numbers,” White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said in a blog to be posted to the White House website later Thursday afternoon. “These are individuals -- many of whom made mistakes at a young age -- who have diligently worked to rehabilitate themselves while incarcerated.”

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Thursday’s commutations include 42 prisoners who were facing life sentences for their crimes. Not all will be released immediately; some will not see their sentences expire until late 2018 and will be required to enter residential drug treatment programs.

Obama has sought in the final years of his presidency to reverse decades of drug-war punishments through commutations, after Congress gridlocked on legislation to overhaul criminal justice laws and reduce sentences for nonviolent crimes. Obama and his aides have decried criminal codes mandating years-long sentences for relatively minor drug crimes as unfair and racially biased. Congressional Republicans have raised limited objections to the mass commutations.

“It sounds like the pace is picking up, which is quite welcome” said Mary Price, the general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a Washington-based nonprofit that has championed clemency petitions.

Increasing Leniency

The administration began a program in 2014 to identify prisoners jailed for non-violent offenses who had served at least a decade in prison and would receive lower sentences if convicted today. Last year, the Justice Department announced new rules to ensure that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders would no longer be charged with federal crimes that impose strict mandatory minimum sentences. During his first term, the president signed legislation that reduced the disparity in sentences for possession of powder cocaine and crack cocaine.

Still, some Republicans say Obama is putting violent felons and drug traffickers back on the street. Bob Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to the president in September asking him to halt the commutation program.

Goodlatte wrote that an “alarming number” of people who received commutations had been convicted of possessing a firearm during the commission of a felony. He also said some people released had “significant connections to organized crime or gangs.”

A White House official said people who received commutations are prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms, under federal law. Obama has also emphasized clemency for individuals who happened to be in possession of a weapon while committing a drug-related crime, rather than those who engaged in armed robbery or murder, the official said.

Critics on the left say Obama could do more. 

Clemency Project 2014, a joint effort between FAMM, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, has submitted clemency petitions on behalf of more than 2,100 prisoners to the Justice Department.

"While today’s announcement means some families will be made whole, many more petitioners were denied -- the vast majority denied with no explanation," said Jessica Jackson Sloan, National Director of #cut50, a nonprofit in Oakland, California, focused on criminal justice issues. "The clemency process is sorely lacking in transparency, with little regard for the emotional impact these decisions have on individuals and their families. For those who were neither denied nor granted mercy, time is running out."

Administrative Difficulties

The former pardon attorney for the Justice Department, Deborah Leff, resigned in January after complaining that her department was not provided enough resources and had been denied access to key officials at the White House. Prisoner advocates say that by providing commutations -- rather than full pardons -- people who are freed can still be subject to court supervision, may not see voting or other rights restored, and still possess criminal records, which complicate job searches.

Obama said in an August news conference that he expected the number of pardons he issued to increase toward the end of his presidency. He acknowledged that the administration had “focused more on commutations than we have on pardons,” to that point.

The best solution, he said, would be an overhaul of the criminal justice system by Congress.

“The President’s clemency authority is a powerful tool being used to powerful effect, but the individualized nature of the relief granted today also highlights the urgent need for bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation,” Eggleston said. “Only Congress can achieve the broader reforms needed to ensure our federal sentencing system operates more fairly and effectively in the service of public safety.”

The legislation has stalled in part over some lawmakers’ insistence that the bill codify a legal principle called mens rea, which would require prosecutors to show that defendants had willful intent to break the law. Opponents have said corporate executives could exploit those changes to escape punishment for crimes.

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, has championed an overhaul on the campaign trail. Clinton promised “end-to-end reform in our criminal justice system -- not half-measures, but full measures” in a Charlotte, North Carolina speech earlier this month.

Some Republicans support an overhaul, pointing to high government spending for incarceration of the world’s largest prison population. But Clinton’s opponent, Republican Donald Trump, has described himself as the “law and order” candidate and has indicated he supports more stringent law enforcement, including the expansion of controversial stop-and-frisk programs.

White House aides say they still believe it’s possible lawmakers could act on an overhaul in the lame-duck session following the election. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, said last month in a speech at the Economic Club of New York he would personally like to see congressional action “sooner rather than later.”

“I still hold out hope that the bipartisan effort that’s taking place in Congress can finish the job and we can have a criminal justice system, at least at the federal level, that is both smart on crime, effective on crime, but recognizes the need for proportionality in sentencing and the need to rehabilitate those who commit crimes,” Obama said in August.

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