WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama on Wednesday commuted the prison sentences of 61 drug offenders, including more than a third serving life sentences, giving new energy to calls for overhauling the U.S. criminal justice system.
All of the inmates are serving time for drug possession, intent to sell or related crimes. Most are nonviolent offenders, although a few were also charged with firearms violations. Obama’s commutation shortens their sentences, with most of the inmates set to be released on July 28.
Obama has long called for getting rid of strict sentences for drug offenses that critics say lead to excessive punishment and sky-high incarceration rates. With Obama’s support, the Justice Department in recent years has directed prosecutors to rein in the use of harsh mandatory minimums and expanded the criteria for inmates applying for clemency.
Though there’s wide bipartisan support in Congress for overhauling the criminal justice system, momentum has slowed as the chaotic presidential campaign has made cooperation between Republicans and Democrats increasingly difficult.
Obama, in a letter to the inmates, said the presidential power to grant commutations and pardons “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.”
Obama met for lunch Wednesday with people whose sentences were previously commuted to hear about the challenges of re-entering society.
The latest commutations bring to 248 the total number of inmates whose sentences Obama has commuted, more than the past six presidents combined, the White House said. The pace of commutations and the rarer use of pardons are expected to increase as the end of Obama’s presidency nears.
Neil Eggleston, the White House counsel, said in a blog post that clemency is a tool of last resort that can help specific people, but doesn’t address the broader need for a justice system that’s “more fair and just.”
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