Obama Frees More Federal Drug War Prisoners, But Time is Running Out

Some 214 federal drug war prisoners saw their prison sentences commuted Wednesday as President Obama took another step toward fulfilling his administration's pledge to use his pardon power to cut draconian drug sentences and free prisoners serving decades-long stretches for non-violent drug crimes.


"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," the president said.

Those whose sentences were commuted Wednesday will walk out of prison on December 1.

With Wednesday's commutations, Obama has now commuted the sentences of 562 men and women sentenced under harsh federal drug laws, including 197 people doing life for drug offenses. That's more commutations than the last nine presidents combined.

But it's not close to the number whose sentences Obama could commute under a program announced in 2014 by then Attorney General Eric Holder and Deputy Assistant Attorney General James Cole. They called on nonviolent federal drug war prisoners to seek clemency in April 2014.

"In 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, reducing unfair disparities in sentences imposed on people for offenses involving different forms of cocaine, but there are still too many people in federal prison who were sentenced under the old regime -- and who, as a result, will have to spend far more time in prison than they would if sentenced today for exactly the same crime," said Holder. "This is simply not right."

Holder noted at the time that Obama had granted commutation to eight people serving time for crack offenses the previous December.

"The White House has indicated it wants to consider additional clemency applications, to restore a degree of justice, fairness, and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety. The Justice Department is committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences," Holder said.

Under Holder's criteria for clemency, low-level drug offenders who had served at least 10 years, had good conduct in prison, had no significant criminal history or connection to gangs, cartels, or organized crime, and who would probably receive a "substantially lower sentence" if convicted of the same offense today would be eligible for sentence cuts.

Of roughly 100,000 federal drug prisoners -- nearly half the entire federal prison population -- more than 36,000 applied for clemency. Many of them did not meet the criteria, but the Justice Department has reviewed nearly 9,500 that did. Of those, only the 562 have actually been granted clemency; applications are still pending for nearly 9,000 more. (An additional 8,000 pending applications are being handled by a consortium of private attorneys, the Clemency Project.)

Many of those might not make it to Obama's desk before the clock runs out on his term because the Justice Department has stumbled in administering the program. Thousands of prisoners doing harsh drug war sentences could lose their chance for early freedom because Justice didn't get around to hiring enough people to handle the flood of applications it generated.

That would undercut Obama's legacy of redressing drug war injustice. There are now only six months to go in his presidency, and nearly 18,000 prisoners who were told to seek clemency are now waiting for a response.

Here is President Obama addressing the commutation issue during an earlier series of sentence cuts:

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