Obama to Release Dozens of Non-Violent Drug Offenders from Harsh Prison Sentences

By Zachary Siegel 07/07/15

The president continues his pullback on the ill-fated War on Drugs.

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"In many ways last week was a culmination of a lot of work since I've been in office," President Barack Obama said after the Supreme Court upheld marriage equality and the Affordable Care Act. While many have agreed that the president is on a roll, the president is wasting no time resting on his laurels, and will soon put the spotlight on drug users and felons.

Within the next few weeks, Obama plans to commute dozens of sentences for non-violent drug offenders. Through the power of clemency, he will likely shorten or lessen more prison sentences at one time than any president has in the last 50 years.

Obama’s recent predecessors, such as Ronald Reagan, only commuted 13 prison-sentences in eight years of office. George W. Bush, commuted only 11. But Lyndon Johnson, in 1966, commuted 80 convicted criminals. Since 1966, only Obama has been able to come close to that number.

In this instance, Obama sees himself righting just one of the many wrongs that came out of the prison-industrial complex, mainly, the unfair surveillance and penalties received by minority men and women, many of whom are serving time for non-violent drug crimes.

The United States has the world’s largest incarcerated population, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). With just 5% of the world’s population, America has 25% of the world’s prison population.

This enormous spike in criminality has been attributed to greedy for-profit prisons, unfair mandatory sentencing, and of course, the War on Drugs, which is now, across all party lines, seen as a historic failure.

The total number of prison commutations during Obama’s presidency may surpass 80, but over 30,000 federal inmates have come forward requesting attenuated jail time. However, only a small number of those requests have reached the president’s desk. There is still a massive wrong needed to be fixed.

But luckily systemic problems within the criminal justice system have recently become a bipartisan domain. Like Obama and his fellow Democrats, Republicans in the upcoming election are calling for a massive overhaul with respect to the broken prison system.

Last March, Obama interviewed David Simon, the creator and writer of The Wire. In their dialogue Obama said he saw “[An] explosion of incarcerations, disproportionately African-American and Latino. The challenge, which you depict in your show is, folks go in at great expense to the state, many times train to become more hardened criminals while in prison, come out and are basically unemployable."

For a more in-depth examination of Obama's clemency policy, check out today's feature piece here.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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