By Aaron Stiles
On August 3rd, President Obama announced that 214 Federal prisoners would have their sentences commuted. This means that those inmates will either begin being processed out of the penitentiary system immediately, or will soon be able to begin processing in a few months.
The Administration explained that their selection process of these individuals were based off “People who we think were overcharged and who we do not believe have a propensity towards violence” the White House explained in their press release.
The Washington Times reported that 67 of the inmates having their sentences altered had been sentenced to life imprisonment. These inmates were also all non-violent convicts.
The idea of a President commuting sentences or full pardons is not an uncommon one, many outgoings Presidents give their signature Presidential Pardons in their last day in office.
However, in the case of Obama, his commutation not only come almost half a year early, but they also served as the biggest sentence reductions in the history of the country and the Presidency.
So, why such a deviation from the standard? This is mainly rooted in The Clemency Initiative, which is a program laid out in 2014 by the Obama administration. According to the Department of Justice, this is an initiative to encourage qualified federal inmates to petition to have their sentences commuted, or reduced, by the President.
Under the new initiative, the Department will prioritize clemency applications from inmates who meet all of the following factors:
“They are currently serving a federal sentence in prison and, by operation of law, likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense(s) today;
They are non-violent, low-level offenders without significant ties to large scale criminal organizations, gangs or cartels;
They have served at least 10 years of their prison sentence;
They do not have a significant criminal history;
They have demonstrated good conduct in prison; and
They have no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment.”
President Obama has stated that he is attempting to “send a clear message” to Congress about the importance of criminal justice reform.
Whether you like Obama or not, this is a positive step in the right direction for those (thousands) of people who have been given harsh sentences for non-violent crimes since the beginning of Richard Nixon’s war on drugs.
The majority of these prison sentences are under Mandatory Minimum sentencing that requires binding prison terms of a particular length for people convicted of certain federal and state crimes.
These mandatory minimum sentences are controversial for many reasons. Some believe that victimless crimes like using drugs or soliciting prostitutes should have lesser punishments due to the fact that it does not cause harm to those who choose not to participate.
Additionally, many point out that these sentences can be on the same level as serious crimes such as murder. This has resulted in thousands of Americans becoming imprisoned over the last few decades. The current number of inmates serving prison time for drug offenses is 84,746.
As a result, this has spurred a growth in prison systems around the country, which is profitable for many parties such as the contractors who build them. This evidently has been a serious problem for years now, with the current number of inmates serving prison time for drug offenses at 84,746; but thanks to Obama’s Clemency Initiative and his follow through of commuted sentences, we are seeing true acknowledgement of the problems in our justice system and the problems of the War on Drugs from the leaders of our Country.
While this is a step in the right direction, the only real way to fix our justice system’s handling of drug offenses is for Congress to pass legislation to create more appropriate drug laws and to end Mandatory Minimum Sentencing for non-violent crimes.