Finally Some Clemency: Obama Commutes Sentences for 8 Crack Cocaine Prisoners

More than 100,000 remain behind bars due to war on drugs policies.

Photo Credit: ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com

Barack Obama is the historic worst of all 44 U.S. presidents when it comes to exercising the executive powers of clemency, which includes pardons and commutation of sentences for prisoners. As of this week, Obama had only issued 39 pardons in his entire presidency. Meanwhile, more than 100,000 people sit in federal prison as a direct result of the war on drugs. While Obama and his administration did revise drug laws this year to disclude mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent offenders who have not been involved in gangs or large-scale drug operations, those revisions did not apply to those already sentenced—that is, until today.

On Dec. 19, Obama commuted the sentences of eight prison inmates who were convicted of nonviolent crack cocaine offenses and have already served 15 years. Six of them were serving life sentences. Now, all eight are expected to be released within 120 days.

 One of the eight prisioners to recieve clemency is  Clarence Aaron, who Phillip Smith has called the "poster boy for drug war excess," on StoptheDrugWar.org. Aaron has has served more than 20 years.

Smith also notes these are commutations, not pardons, meaning that people currently serving time will get to leave prison (as opposed to pardons, which applies to a person already released). 

The selected group of prisoners probably would have received significantly milder sentences had they been tried under current drug laws and policies, and Obama’s decision to commute the eight marks the first time inmates have been granted retroactive clemency based on new laws.

Obama made the following statement to address his decision to exercise his executive clemency powers:

“Three years ago, I signed the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act, which dramatically narrowed the disparity between penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses. This law began to right a decades-old injustice, but for thousands of inmates, it came too late. If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society. Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.

Today, I am commuting the prison terms of eight men and women who were sentenced under an unfair system. Each of them has served more than 15 years in prison. In several cases, the sentencing judges expressed frustration that the law at the time did not allow them to issue punishments that more appropriately fit the crime.

Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness. But it must not be the last. In the new year, lawmakers should act on the kinds of bipartisan sentencing reform measures already working their way through Congress. Together, we must ensure that our taxpayer dollars are spent wisely, and that our justice system keeps its basic promise of equal treatment for all.”

The president should be applauded for the historic effort he has made to help eight people who were needlessly stuck behind bars, but as the president admits, it's just a first step. More than 100,000 remain incarcerated. Before the U.S. criminal justice system reaches a place of "fairness," there is much more clemency to be granted and many more amendments to be made when it comes to drug law and policy.

April M. Short is a freelance writer who focuses on health, wellness and social justice. She previously worked as AlterNet's drugs and health editor. 

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