President Obama Commutes Sentences Of 46 Federal Drug Offenders

A good first step, but there's a lot more than needs to be done to reform the criminal justice system.

Handcuffs Jail

President Obama has commuted the sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders currently serving time in Federal prisons, but there’s much more that both he and Congress could do to fix the criminal justice system:

WASHINGTON — President Obama announced on Monday that he was commuting the sentences of 46 federal drug offenders, more than doubling the number of nonviolent criminals to whom he has granted clemency since taking office.

“These men and women were not hardened criminals, but the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years; 14 of them had been sentenced to life for nonviolent drug offenses, so their punishments didn’t fit the crime,” Mr. Obama said in a video released on the White House Facebook page, in which he is shown signing the commutation letters. “I believe that at its heart, America is a nation of second chances, and I believe these folks deserve their second chance.”

Mr. Obama’s action on Monday brought the total number of commutations he has issued to 89, exceeding that of any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, who commuted 226 sentences during his tenure. It also meant that he has commuted more sentences than the last four presidents combined.

Mr. Obama’s action on Monday brought the total number of commutations he has issued to 89, exceeding that of any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, who commuted 226 sentences during his tenure. It also meant that he has commuted more sentences than the last four presidents combined.

In a letter written to each of the inmates in which he personally notifies them that their sentences have been commuted, Mr. Obama says he has chosen them out of the thousands who apply for clemency because “you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around.”

“I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong, and change your life for the better,” Mr. Obama wrote. “So good luck, and godspeed.”

The commutations are part of a second-term push by Mr. Obama to use clemency to correct what he sees as the excesses of the past, when politicians eager to be tough on crime threw away the key even for minor criminals. As a result, African-American and Hispanic men were disproportionately affected.

Mr. Obama had already commuted the sentences of 43 prisoners, as part of an initiative begun last year by James M. Cole, the deputy attorney general at the time. Mr. Cole set criteria for who might qualify: generally nonviolent inmates who have served more than 10 years in prison, who have behaved well while incarcerated and who would not have received as lengthy a sentence under today’s revised sentencing rules.

Mr. Obama plans to spend much of the week talking about a criminal justice overhaul that would include changes to sentencing guidelines, lessening penalties for drug offenders. The president plans to introduce his proposals on Tuesday in Philadelphia before the N.A.A.C.P.’s annual convention.

President Obama has been criticized in the past, including by me, for his seeming reluctance to use to the pardon and commutation powers granted to him under the Constitution to provide relief to people who have been sentenced to seemingly unjustly lengthy sentences for nonviolent crimes related to drug possession and trafficking. The fact that he has spoken about these issues many times going back to even before he was running for President in 2007 made his apparent reluctance to use the power all the more frustrating to those who have been advocating on behalf of criminal justice reform for some time now. To no small degree, of course, that reluctance is largely due to the fact that the pardons and commutations have become increasingly politicized in recent decades to the point where most recent President have left the bulk of their action in this area for the time near the end of their Presidency when the political consequences of potentially controversial decisions aren’t really something they care about much anymore. In that sense, then, President Obama’s decision today, which does constitute largest number of commutations announced in a single day by any President, is good step forward.

Notwithstanding that good step forward, though, today’s announcement is actually more of a reminder of the fact that sentencing reform is something that has long been ignored by both sides of the political aisle. A year ago, for example, it was announced that the President was considering commuting “hundreds” of sentences, so the fact that we’ve whittled that down to just 46 is something of a disappointment. It’s possible, of course, that these 46 were deemed to be the eligible for commutation at this time and that others may be announced in the future, but given the number of people who are actually serving egregiously long sentences in Federal prisons for nonviolent drug offenses, this is merely a drop in the bucket. While I’m glad to see the President take this action, I hope it’s not the last time he intends to visit the issue before leaving office. Additionally, the real problems with criminal justice will not be solved without action at the legislative level. In that area, there have actually been some interesting alliances developed across the political aisle in an effort to advance real, constructive ideas about how fix an obviously broken system. Rand Paul and Cory Booker, for example, are working together on legislation to overhaul the criminal justice system. The Center for American Progress and public policy groups backed by Charles and David Koch have been working together on a number of justice reform issues over the past six months or so. Unfortunately, there’s been no indication so far that the leaders in either party on Capitol Hill are all that eager to embrace this issue, and with the exception of Rand Paul the candidates for President have largely been silent on the matter. Perhaps the President’s actions today, and his focus later this week on prison reform issues, will change the debate, but given the fact that no politician ever lost an election by being tough on crime I wouldn’t count on it.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Crime, Law and the Courts, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Scott F. says:

    From the article you’ve excerpted:

    It also meant that he has commuted more sentences than the last four presidents combined.

    As you’ve noted and as recent history confirms, there is almost nothing to gain and everything to lose for the President to commute the sentences of drug offenders. Obama makes a choice because it is the right thing to do. He’ll be spat upon for doing so in 3…2…1…

  2. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Good.

    Here in Colorado, several of those individuals would have been called “Entrepreneurs”.

  3. stonetools says:

    “You see , Ethel, he’s letting the potheads, drug fiends and more of his people out of jail, just as Alex Jones predicted. And that harpy, Hillary Clinton, will just continue letting them people out, so they can get hopped up on drugs and murder us in our beds.”
    Likely Fox news-watching Tea Party follower.

    I for one am glad that the President summoned up the political courage to do this. Man, do I like the “rhymes with Bucket List” Obama.

    Additionally, the real problems with criminal justice will not be solved without action at the legislative level.

    IOW, they won’t be solved given the current Congress. Whatever Rand Paul and Corey Booker is suggesting is going to be drowned out by lots of calls from Republicans decrying the President’s “soft on crime” approach and calling for “law and order”.

  4. PJ says:

    Mr. Obama’s action on Monday brought the total number of commutations he has issued to 89, exceeding that of any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, who commuted 226 sentences during his tenure. It also meant that he has commuted more sentences than the last four presidents combined.

    Mr. Obama’s action on Monday brought the total number of commutations he has issued to 89, exceeding that of any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, who commuted 226 sentences during his tenure. It also meant that he has commuted more sentences than the last four presidents combined.

    The NYT needs to commute a couple of sentences.

  5. Tyrell says:

    Certainly these non-violent offenders should not be locked up for offenses like possession of illegal drugs, pick pockets, traffic violations, unpaid library fines, and hunting/fishing violations. Those sorts of crimes can be dealt with consequences like fines, helping at schools, and cleaning sidewalks.
    The emphasis should be on getting violent criminals locked up and keeping them there.
    And certainly not giving criminals who are here illegally “sanctuary”.

  6. Ron Beasley says:

    The primary resistance will come from the Private Prison Industrial Complex.

  7. Argon says:

    Next step for justice: Bring the US torturers forward to face charges.

  8. Davebo says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    Amen Ron.

    CCA will scream bloody murder and their screams will be heard on the hill. Payed for politicians ted to stay payed for.

  9. Argon says:

    @Argon:
    A downvote against bringing war crimes torturers to justice? Seriously? Haven’t we signed treaties to that effect? Haven’t we prosecuted others for doing the same things?

  10. Hal_10000 says:

    46 is a good start. Good for Obama. Let’s make it more like 46,000.

  11. Tyrell says:

    @Hal_10000: Yes, and now these criminals need to be locked up: career criminals, gang members, kidnappers, bank robbers, arsonists, sex offenders, those who assault and abuse women, and airline hijackers. They need to be kept behind bars, not released on some obscure technicality by some soft on crime judge so that they can roam the streets again, preying on innocent people. The president needs to address and do something about this ridiculous “sanctuary” law which protects criminals who are here illegally.

  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Tyrell:

    preying on innocent people.

    Halp me, halp me! That evil brown man is stealing the grass again!!!

  13. wr says:

    @Argon: “Haven’t we prosecuted others for doing the same things?”

    Yes, but that’s completely different. We’re America, so everything we do is good.

  14. Franklin says:

    @Hal_10000: I think I read there were about 35,000 applications for these commutations, so doing 46,000 would be a stretch. Although I suppose if you said you were going to do that many, you’d get a lot more applications.

  15. de stijl says:

    Mr. Obama’s action on Monday brought the total number of commutations he has issued to 89, exceeding that of any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, who commuted 226 sentences during his tenure. It also meant that he has commuted more sentences than the last four presidents combined.

    This is factually true, but hugely misleading.

    Obama has commuted 89 sentences, but he has only pardoned 11.

    Reagan pardoned or granted clemency to 406. George H. W. Bush – 77, Clinton – 459, and George W. Bush – 200.

    IOW, based upon the recent past, Obama has been much more heavily weighted towards commutations rather than pardons.

  16. de stijl says:

    @Tyrell:

    Let’s pretend this is HS debate and you’ve been assigned to pro side of the “Municipal Sanctuary Laws” topic.

    Can you imagine why, say, the St. Paul Police Dept. are less concerned about a witnesses immigration status and more concerned about a murder the witness may have information about? And why an illegal alien would be more likely to help the police if they don’t have to worry that will be held by the St. Paul cops until ICE picks them up and begins deportation proceedings?

    Would you be utterly stymied by your assignment, or could you articulate the reasons why sanctuary laws are so wide-spread and supported by local PDs?

  17. george says:

    @Argon:

    Next step for justice: Bring the US torturers forward to face charges.

    Considering he’s using drones, I doubt he’s going to want to bring up war-crime charges; people in glass houses etc.

  18. When he releases drug/poison distributors from prison, what messages is Mr. Obama sending to mature, responsible, loving, caring moms and dads living in struggling communities and neighborhoods?

    What is Mr. Obama saying to single-moms and/or dads who everyday are faced with stresses and challenges of keeping their children safe from physical or emotional harm, and the anti-social influences of The Street culture that a irresponsible Baltimore mom failed to protect her young teen son from?

    Restore Pride In Parenting; End Child Abuse & Neglect

    Victims of Horrific Child Abuse; Young American Kendrick Lamar Boldly Speaks About Child Abuse, The Seeds of Poverty and Crime

    With all due respect to my American neighbors of African descent, the oppression of humans that led to racism and slavery has been replaced with a new form of human oppression that impedes and deprives many American children from experiencing a safe, fairly happy American kid childhood.

    In his 2015 Grammy award winning Rap Performance titled “I”, Kendrick Lamar writes, “I’ve been dealing with depression ever since an adolescent.”

    During a January 20, 2011 LAWeekly interview (Google search) Kendrick, born in 1987, the same year songwriter Suzanne Vega wrote a song about child abuse and VICTIM DENIAL that was nominated for a Grammy award, he told the interviewer:

    “Lamar’s parents moved from Chicago to Compton in 1984 with all of $500 in their pockets. “My mom’s one of 13 [THIRTEEN] siblings, and they all got SIX kids, and till I was 13 everybody was in Compton,” he says.”

    “I’m 6 years old, seein’ my uncles playing with shotguns, sellin’ dope in front of the apartment. My moms and pops never said nothing, ’cause they were young and living wild, too. I got about 15 stories like ‘Average Joe.'”

    It seems evident to me Kendrick identified the source of his depression, the roots of poverty, the child abuse/maltreatment that prevented him, his brothers, sisters, cousins, neighborhood friends, elementary and JHS classmates from enjoying a fairly happy, safe Average Joe and Josie American kid childhood.

    Seems the adults responsible for raising the children in Kendrick’s immediate and extended family placed obstacles in their children’s way, causing their kids to deal with challenges and stresses young minds are not prepared to deal with…nor should they or any other children be exposed to and have to deal with.

    It seems evident to me these PARENTAL INTRODUCED obstacles and challenges cause some developing children’s minds to become tormented and go haywire, not knowing OR NOT CARING ABOUT right from wrong…because as the mature, young victims of child abuse realize their parents introduced them to a life of pain and struggle, totally unlike the mostly safe, happy life the media showed them many American kids were enjoying. RESENTMENT

    I cannot speak for anyone else, but if I was raised in Kendrick’s family I would most likely be silently peeved at my parents for being immature irresponsible “living wild” adults who deprived me of a safe, happy childhood.

    Though like many victims of child abuse, most likely I would deny my parents harmed me, seeking to blame others for the pain my parents caused to me.

    I wonder how little Kendrick and his classmates reacted when their elementary school teacher introduced the DARE presenter and they learned about the real dangers of drugs and how they harm people, including their parents?

    In a Oct 25, 2012, LAWeekly interview (Google search) Kendrick talks about being a SIX-YEAR-OLD child who was not able to trust and rely on his mom…essentially he speaks about being emotionally abandon by his own mom.

    Kendrick shares his experiences about feeling lonely, which if you read up on Cognitive Dissonance that Dr. Joy Degruy writes about in her book, “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing (PTSS)”, is it perfectly understandable why Kendrick feels lonely.

    Search Google “Post traumatic Disorder Dr Joy de Gruy Leary – YouTube” to watch a very disturbing yet enlightening 1:21:00 lecture about “Cognitive Dissonance” and how it harms developing kids like Kendrick. Dr. DeGruy does an excellent job describing how “CD” helped perpetuate the human ignorances we call racism and slavery.

    Dr. DeGruy also describes how using our common sense, we should be able to understand how “CD” can negatively impact developing children like Kendrick Lamar (born 1987), as well as Tupac Shakur (born 1971) and Shawn ‘Jay Z Carter’ (born 1969), to name a few more victims of horrific child abuse.

    Early in my police career when I was assigned to the Brooklyn community *Shawn ‘Jay Z’ Carter* raps/writes about attempting destroy by selling poison to people living and working in his community, and rapping about engaging in extremely harmful anti-social behaviors designed to protect his drug operation from rival gangs in adjoining neighborhoods, a few of my training officers advised me to be prepared to experience “culture shock.”

    I did find out what “culture shock” is, though it was not a culture of violence and harmful anti-social activities many were insinuating I would be shocked by.

    The aspect of this Brooklyn, NY community that shocked me to the core was witnessing children being emotionally scarred by a “American Sub-Culture of Child Abuse/Neglect” that Kendrick Lamar raps and speaks about some twenty-five years after I first witnessed the “American Sub-Culture of Child Abuse/Neglect” that today CONTINUES emotionally damaging many developing children and their communities.

    I personally witnessed the emotional trauma and physical pain a young, neglected, unsupervised, Shawn ‘Jay Z’ Carter is responsible for causing, and its aftermath, leaving a community populated by mostly peaceful people fearing for their safety on a 24/7 basis, which are the hours Shawn’s crew/gang were selling community harming substances.

    During the twelve years I served this community I met hundreds of peaceful people who were just as shaken, upset and deeply disturbed as I was by the daily displays of violence and other anti-social activities mostly caused by teens and adults who were victims of childhood abuse and neglect.

    I was lucky, at the end of my workday I could leave the community, returning to a more peaceful residential community were concerns for me and my family’s safety were significantly lower.

    However, virtually all of my civilian co-workers, mostly loving, competent moms living in this community were not as fortunate. They were burdened with stresses and challenges my parents did not face to any significant degree.

    The added stresses and challenges my peaceful co-workers faced was preventing their children from being negatively influenced by abused/neglected/unsupervised children being raised and nurtured by immature, “living wild” teen moms and young women who irresponsibly begin building families before they acquired the skills, maturity, PATIENCE and means to independently provide for their family of developing children.

    Reading Kendrick’s background, if you have any compassion for kids, you have to feel horrible for a FIRST GRADE school child who can’t depend on his mom to be there for him, a mom who exposes him to things kids should not have to witness and deal with in their young minds.

    Kendrick has taken a bold first step by revealing his mother (and father) made poor choices that deprived him, his brothers and sisters from experiencing a safe, fairly happy Average Joe or Josie American kid childhood….

    YET NO ONE IS LISTENING TO KENDRICK….WHY?

    #ProtectKidsFromIrresponsibleCaregivers

  19. Pharoah Narim says:

    @george: And how is use of a drone illegal again?

  20. Pharoah Narim says:

    @Avery Jarhman: Maybe if you were smart enough to be something more than a cop and/or you actually lived in the community you only were in because it got you a pay check–you would realize how ridiculous your conclusions are. Rap music? The biggest consumers of rap today are suburbanites–its mainstream pop music these days. Music is the least of triggers of the problems in the ghetto.

  21. @Pharoah Narim:

    Hello, Pharoah Narim. I am puzzled by something, perhaps someone can help? When & Why Did Our Moms Become Less Than Human?

    Who is responsible for *influencing or conditioning* many young Americans of African descent to characterize our moms, sisters, grandmas, daughters and aunts as less than human creatures?

    Growing up in the 60s, year after year I’d roll out of bed in the morning, crank up my 9v transistor radio listening to contemporary sounds, including a new genre of American music its artists, composers, lyricists and producers called Motown.

    My Motown musician friends wrote and performed music that made me smile, wanting to dance, celebrate life and wanting to experience the love between a man and a woman they were constantly telling me about. Every hour of every day I could tune in my radio and listen to my talented Motown musician friends singing songs praising and loving women

    Listening to these musicians celebrating life and loving women *conditioned me* to believe they are good, peaceful people deserving of respect, admiration and a large *“Thank you”* for sharing their musical talent with me, my friends and our world.

    What I am trying to figure out is why today, many of my Motown friend’s children and grandchildren are writing contemporary music performance lyrics that clearly are demeaning and HATING on each other, as well as writing lyrics demeaning women, our moms, sisters, grandmas, daughters and aunts, characterizing women as *itches* and *hores*, essentially less than human not deserving of respect? Which is pretty much how greedy or genuinely ignorant early Euros characterized the African people they abducted and enslaved.

    Pharoah Narim, what happened? Why have females fallen out of favor with many young people who write rap hip hop performances?

    Another question. Today when ten-year-old American kids wake up, tune into their fav contemporary radio station, listening to lyrics describing anti-social activities and behaviors their parents, community and educators are telling them are harmful to them, their neighbors and community, what opinions, if any, will these 5th grade children form about the music performers writing music lyrics describing anti-social behaviors and activities that often emotionally traumatize and physically harm individual peaceful people and the neighborhoods they live or work in?

    Who is responsible for influencing some or many Americans of African descent to view females as less than human *itches?

    Pharoah Narim, what subliminal messages are today’s youngsters learning when they hear Americans of African descent characterizing women, aka our moms, sisters, grandmas, daughters and aunts, as inhuman bvtches, not worthy of respect?

    Thanks.

  22. Pharoah Narim says:

    Mr Jarhman, apologies for insulting your intelligence and even more kudos for not returning the insult.

    Your premise might have a point, IF, you saw influences in similar demographics…you do not. Suburban Black and White young men have similar music consumption habits to their urban and rural poor counterparts– and yet do not display the same misogynistic behaviors or language. Therefore, we can not look at music as a primary motivating factor in causing the behavior. People tend to get overly nostalgic about their coming of age years. The bottom line is the ghetto was screwed up in the 50-60s as well. Sure, there may have been less violence in the community but American culture in general is more violent since those times. An old axiom goes : when America catches a cold–the ghetto catches the flu.

    The real problem, IMO is that integration broke down the mixed-income communities that the blacks lived in during Jim Crow creating a “brain drain”. Those that had skills and higher aspirations left the community to live in better-serviced/higher property value white communities. This left a group of people behind that had no skills left to community-build in neighborhoods that were redlined, over-policed, and underserved by city gov’t. You can see the effects of this on a macro scale in a country like Haiti, who produces a large number of highly motivated, intelligent people that go to other countries for education and never return to Haiti. They make their new adopted counties better. Who can blame them with the mess that is Haitian politics? Bottom line is I think you should think deeper about the problem set. Who is responsible for the poor musical influences in poor black communities? Look at your music and entertainment execs–I bet non of them look nothing like the people they sell (piss poor) entertainment to in these communities.

  23. @Pharoah Narim:

    Pharoah Narim says: “Therefore, we can not look at music as a primary motivating factor in causing the behavior.”

    Correct, Pharoah. We should be focusing on the lives of the teens and men creating the raps. In plain spoken English Kendrick has more than once revealed the child abuse and neglect he, his brothers and sisters endured, depriving them of a safe, fairly happy childhood.

    In Dear Mama and That’s Just The Way It Is, Tupac raps about his mom disappointing him and despising his dad. He raps about waking in the morning and thinking about blasting himself. Pharoah, have you read the May2015? NYTimes article reporting an increase in suicide among young Americans of African descent?

    The bottom line is the ghetto was screwed up in the 50-60s as well. Sure, there may have been less violence in the community but American culture in general is more violent since those times. An old axiom goes : when America catches a cold–the ghetto catches the flu.

    Pharoah, with all due respect, I understand why many deny the truth, declining to point their finger at the population of American teens and young women who are failing their children and communities.

    Though I do not respect their decision to ignore Kendrick, Tupac and dozens of American rappers who describe in their lyrics the child abuse, neglect, maltreatment they suffered or witnessed others being victimized by.

    Pharoah, I invite you to read about a Brooklyn, NY mom who had no clue she was subjecting her children to emotional abuse and maltreament until she invited a city cop to her home to report a theft. Search: Brooklyn’s Boom-Box Mom

    …a country like Haiti, who produces a large number of highly motivated, intelligent people that go to other countries for education and never return to Haiti. They make their new adopted counties better.

    My Haitian born, American neighbors of twenty years had no problem making a home on our block and raising two boys maturing into educated, polite young men. He keeps their property well groomed and removes their trash cans from the curb when he gets home from work, just like most of us.

    Who is responsible for the poor musical influences in poor black communities? Look at your music and entertainment execs–I bet non of them look nothing like the people they sell (piss poor) entertainment to in these communities.

    Pharoah, my beef with men like Jimmy Iovine, Suge Knight, Shawn Carter has little to do with the rap performances they encourage and produce.

    I am focused on the emotional child abuse/neglect that inspires and fuels the anti-social behaviors they rap about. Behaviors that many depressed teens and men vent by causing emotional fear and/or physical pain to their peaceful neighbors and communities.

    #ProtectKidsFromIrresponsibleCaregivers