President Obama Commutes Prison Sentences for 58 Non-Violent Drug Offenders

By Paul Gaita 05/10/16

The May 5 commutations bring Obama's total commuted sentences to 306 with more promised by the end of his presidency.

President Obama Commutes Prison Sentences for 58 Non-Violent Drug Offenders
Photo viaShutterstock/Drop of Light

On May 5, President Barack Obama commuted the prison sentences of 58 more inmates serving time for nonviolent drug offenses. This brings the number of sentences commuted by Obama to 306, more than the previous six presidents combined. Eighteen of the 58 inmates were serving life sentences, while others had already spent at least two decades behind bars for charges ranging from cocaine possession, to conspiracy to distribute marijuana. 

The commutations were granted under the administration's Smart on Crime initiative, which, since it was announced in 2013, has sought to reform the criminal justice system and reduce the U.S. prison population of more than 2.2 million inmates. The Guardian reported in 2013 that among the inmate population serving time in federal prisons, about half are there for drug offenses, many of them low-level dealers. And about 60% are sentenced under mandatory minimum sentencing, like Charles C. Brown—one of the 58 inmates—who received a life sentence in 2004 for three counts of crack cocaine possession and distribution intent.

At the time, Judge Mary Lisi, who oversaw the case, was opposed to handing down the sentence to Brown, stating that federal law had given her “no choice” but to do so because of the amount of drugs he was charged with. Brown is one of the lucky ones. His current sentence will expire on September 2, 2016. 

In a post on, President Obama wrote that he will continue to review clemency applications, but said that “only Congress can bring about the lasting changes we need to federal sentencing.” Recent bipartisan efforts in Congress to reform federal sentencing laws are encouraging, he wrote, especially regarding "harsh mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses."

“It just doesn’t make sense to require a nonviolent drug offender to serve 20 years, or in some cases, life, in prison. An excessive punishment like that doesn’t fit the crime. It’s not serving taxpayers, and it’s not making us safer," the president wrote. "As a country, we have to make sure that those who take responsibility for their mistakes are able to transition back to their communities. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do. And it’s something I will keep working to do as long as I hold this office."

Most of the sentences will expire on September 2, while others, like that of Jacob George Colbert, who has served 19 years for conspiracy to distribute in excess of 50 grams of cocaine base, will expire by 2018. Colbert, who himself is a recovering crack cocaine addict, pled for leniency in a 2014 letter to U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank: 

"I got set up to go out to Minnesota from California on a bus and was promised some money, crack and a truck. I took my chances and here I sit with almost a 20-year sentence. In no way am I violent, I was hurting myself more than anything or anyone else from using crack cocaine. But I have learned I don't never want to see no crack no more. It's all over I'll never use again never." 

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.