News & Politics

President Obama Continues to Commute Non-Violent Drug War Prisoners

This week President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 214 people incarcerated in federal prison, almost all for drug offenses.

Photo Credit: Jose Gil / Shutterstock.com

This week President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 214 people incarcerated in federal prison, almost all for drug offenses. This brings his total number of clemencies granted to 562 people. Many of those who received commutations today were victims of the disparity in sentencing between crack and cocaine. These powder/crack drug laws have managed to destroy not only the lives of those sentenced but also their families and loved ones.

In his final days in office President Obama has chosen to step up to the plate and do more to release those serving time in prison under out dated draconian drug laws. "The President should be applauded for today's action, but as his term runs out he must step up the frequency and number of commutations," said Michael Collins, deputy director at DPA's Office of National Affairs. He also said that Paul Ryan has said that the House will vote on criminal justice reform when they return in September and Mitch McConnell must make the same commitment."

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, spearheaded by Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), includes reductions in mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, an expansion of the federal "safety valve" which allows judges to use their discretion to sentence people below statutory mandatory minimums, and will expand prison programming and early release, among other things. A similar bill, championed by Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), was introduced in the House. Both bills have strong bipartisan support, and are awaiting floor action. 

As reported by the Drug Policy Alliance in the past there were many controversies surrounding the issue of crack and powder cocaine. Years ago media reports claimed that even only a single dose of crack was addictive. This lead to the mass hysteria associated with the use of crack cocaine. From this evolved the famous myth of the crack baby epidemic in the 1980s. This is now considered to be tremendously exaggerated, but at that time it compounded the problem which led to the creation of the 100 to 1 ratios used to convict drug dealers. Established by the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988, the 100-to-1 ratio refers to the amount of crack versus powder cocaine necessary to trigger mandatory minimum prison sentences - meaning that possession of five grams of crack cocaine would mandate the same minimum sentence as 500 grams of powder cocaine. 

This law stood on the books for many years and helped destroy the criminal justice system until it was revised. The revision reduced the disparity between the amount of powder and crack cocaine needed to activate criminal penalties from a 100:1 weight ratio to an 18:1 weight ratio and thus eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine.

In August of 2013 I said with a swipe of his pen, President Obama could give those sentenced under those laws a second chance by giving them clemency. I pray that he shows some compassion for those who are worthy and ready to return to society. I guess President Obama heard me and with the help of Neal Pierce of the Washington Post Writers Group who wrote an excellent article on the subject in which Pierce highlighted my plea to President Obama. He went on to say:

“And there's the question of pardons. Anthony Papa, media manager of the Drug Policy Alliance, who was imprisoned 12 years under New York State's Rockefeller drug laws before receiving clemency, says it isn't clear what the administration's new policy will mean for people now behind bars. His proposal: "Obama should use his presidential authority to pardon and, in particular, commute the sentences of people who were charged under the old 100-to-one crack to powder cocaine ratio. Society would be better served by not locking up people for extraordinarily long sentences for nonviolent, low-level drug offenses. It's a waste of tax dollars and human lives."

As an activist who has been fighting for the reform of mandatory drug sentences, I have to give credit to President Obama in granting many individuals a second chance in life. I ask congress to now follow Obama's lead and create legislation that would give those that have fallen in the cracks of criminal justice reform a second chance to become productive tax paying citizens.

Anthony Papa is the manager of media and artists relations for the Drug Policy Alliance. He is the author of This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency.

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