President Obama on Friday commuted the sentences of 72 inmates, the latest sign he is accelerating his clemency push during his final months in office.
It was the second time in the past eight days the White House announced that a large group of people, most convicted of nonviolent drug offenses, would be released from federal prison. The two batches totaled 170 inmates.
In total, 944 people have had their sentences cut short by Obama — more than the last 11 presidents combined — with 760 receiving commutations this year alone.
“What President Obama has done for commutations is unprecedented in the modern era,” White House counsel Neil Eggleston wrote in a blog post.
“The president is committed to reinvigorating the clemency authority, demonstrating that our nation is a nation of second chances, where mistakes from the past will not deprive deserving individuals of the opportunity to rejoin society and contribute to their families and communities.”
Friday’s clemency grants include 16 people serving life sentences. More than two dozen will be released as early as next spring, but many will not be freed immediately.
Some will not get out of prison until fall 2018. Other inmates' releases are conditional on them entering enter residential drug treatment programs.
During the final stretch of his presidency, Obama has ramped up his use of clemency power to free prisoners serving lengthy sentences handed down during the government's war on drugs.
A bipartisan push in Congress to overhaul the nation’s sentencing laws has stalled during that time. Eggleston urged lawmakers to take up the legislation in the lame-duck session of Congress after the elections, “including reforms that address the excessive mandatory minimum sentences.”
Obama has repeatedly denounced the long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses as overly punitive, arguing they’ve had a devastating impact on communities of color.
In 2014, the administration launched a clemency initiative to identify drug offenders worthy of an early release.
Only nonviolent, low-level offenders who have served at least 10 years of their federal sentence, demonstrated good behavior and have no significant criminal history or a history of violence are eligible.
The latest batch also includes nine inmates convicted on firearm-related charges.
Those releases have fueled complaints from some Republicans that Obama is releasing dangerous criminals back into their communities.
“These are not people picked up for smoking pot on a street corner,” Thomas Fitton, president of conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, told The Hill last week. “These are key figures in major drug operations.”
A White House official said people who receive clemency are barred from purchasing a firearm under federal law. In selecting inmates worthy of early release, Obama makes a distinction between people who possessed a weapon while committing a drug-related offense and those convicted of armed robbery or murder.
“The president has been clear that his goal is to commute the sentences of those who have truly rehabilitated themselves and do not have a propensity for violence,” the official said.
Criminal-justice reform groups, on the other hand, have urged Obama to pick up the pace, especially because there is no guarantee the next president will continue the initiative.
The advocacy group #cut50 announced it’s holding two days of events next week with families of people awaiting commutations, including a candlelight vigil in front of the White House.
Alice Johnson, a 61-year old grandmother, has asked the administration for clemency after spending the last 20 years behind bars for a nonviolent drug offense. She’s currently serving a life sentence even though she was a first-time offender.
“I never thought it would take this long,” Johnson said in an interview. “By all indications, I’m a perfect candidate for it.”
Lydia Wheeler contributed