Obama Grants Early Release for 61 Convicted of Drug Crimes

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Obama Grants Early Release for 61 Convicted of Drug Crimes

By Zachary Siegel 03/31/16

While Obama’s commitment to free unfairly incarcerated individuals is commendable, advocates wish more could be done. 

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Obama Grants Early Release for 61 Convicted of Drug Crimes
Photo via White House

President Obama commuted the sentences of 61 prisoners incarcerated for drug and firearm crimes, about a third of whom were facing life sentences under unduly harsh laws that have been criticized for targeting minorities, the White House announced Wednesday. 

“They're Americans who’d been serving time on the kind of outdated sentences that are clogging up our jails and burning through our tax dollars. Simply put, their punishments didn't fit the crime,” President Obama wrote on his Facebook page.

“Most of them are low-level drug offenders whose sentences would have been shorter if they were convicted under today’s laws,” Obama continued. “I believe America is a nation of second chances, and with hard work, responsibility, and better choices, people can change their lives and contribute to our society.”

Obama has now commuted the sentences of 248 prisoners, which is more than the total commuted by the previous six presidents combined, according to the White House. 

While Obama’s commitment to free unfairly incarcerated individuals is commendable, especially in contrast to recent presidents, advocates wish more could be done. 

“We are deeply gratified that the president has used the power of the Oval Office to give relief to people serving unjust sentences for low-level, nonviolent crimes,” Julie Stewart, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told the New York Times. “Unfortunately, clemency can’t change policy. Congress should be eliminating mandatory minimum sentences so that thousands more don’t serve excessive sentences that don’t make Americans safer.”

President Barack Obama hugs Kemba Smith during a greet with formerly incarcerated individuals who have received commutations. The president later took the group to lunch at a local restaurant. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Throughout his last year in office, White House officials said the president will continue to grant clemency to individuals who meet criteria determined by the Justice Department. Broadly, those criteria include non-violent offenders who are serving unnecessarily long sentences, mostly for drug-related crimes. 

The president also wants to emphasize community reentry, so that once people are released from prison they will have the tools to sustain a productive life. On Thursday, the White House will host a discussion with prison reformists and other officials about how best to help those receiving clemency return to life outside of prison. 

President Barack Obama meets for lunch with formerly incarcerated individuals who have received commutations, at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

In a letter to the 61 individuals who received clemency, Obama wrote: “The power to grant pardons and commutations … embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws.” 

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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.

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