John Legend Urges Obama to Free More Non-Violent Drug Offenders

By McCarton Ackerman 12/13/16

Time is running out for inmates seeking to have their sentences reduced by President Obama.

John Legend

John Legend is making sure Barack Obama hears him loud and clear before leaving office. The singer penned an op-ed for Rolling Stone that urged the president to offer commutations for potentially thousands more people in the coming weeks. 

In the piece published last Friday (Dec. 9), Legend praised Obama for commuting more sentences of non-violent drug offenders than any other president in history. But he still believes there is more that can be done, particularly when it comes to sentencing disparities between powder and rock cocaine, as well as the backlog of cases involving non-violent offenders looking to have their excessively long sentences reduced.

“An estimated 36,000 non-violent drug offenders housed in federal prisons have sought relief under your clemency initiative and it is unclear how many of the remaining cases will be reviewed before you leave,” he wrote. “As the Surgeon General noted, drug addiction is not a moral failing but a chronic health issue deserving of our compassion. What is a moral failing, however, is the War on Drugs and America’s addiction to incarceration which has not increased safety but needlessly torn families apart.”

Legend has continued to be an advocate for criminal justice reform with his organization #FREEAMERICA, which aims to change legislation around incarceration policies in the U.S. and the public perception of inmates. Last November, he took part in Vevo’s “Why I Vote” series, sharing the story of how his mother spent time behind bars due to her drug addiction.

"We both agree that when people are going through those kinds of issues, they really need help; they don't need to be locked up,” he said. “They need counseling. They need drug treatment."

President Obama commuted the sentences of 79 more federal inmates on Nov. 22, bringing his total to 1,023. His administration received 30,000 applications after the Justice Department announced the initiative to expedite the clemency process in 2014, but that amount has been whittled down to 6,000 as of last August. Far more clemency applications have been rejected than approved, with Obama’s tally in July 2015 showing 9,000 denied applications and just 38 approved ones.

But with President-elect Donald Trump unlikely to continue the trend of freeing non-violent offenders, prison advocates recognize the sense of urgency around Obama’s final weeks in office.

“At the risk of sounding ungrateful, we say, ‘Thanks, but please hurry,’” said Kevin Ring, vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). “We know there are thousands more who received outdated and excessive mandatory sentences and we think they all deserve to have their petitions considered before the president leaves office.” 

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.