President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 61 inmates Wednesday, part of his ongoing effort to give relief to prisoners who were harshly sentenced in the nation’s war on drugs.
More than one-third of the inmates were serving life sentences. Obama has granted clemency to 248 federal inmates, including Wednesday’s commutations.
White House officials said that Obama will continue granting clemency to inmates and who meet certain criteria set out by the Justice Department throughout his last year. The president has vowed to change how the criminal justice system treats nonviolent drug offenders.
Since the Obama administration launched a high-profile clemency initiative, thousands more inmates have applied. Another 9,115 clemency petitions from prisoners are still pending.
The commutations come the day before the White House holds an event on Thursday called “Life after Clemency,” that will include former inmates and their attorneys, along with some prison reform advocates. The president’s senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, is meeting with advocates, former inmates and family members of prisoners Wednesday at the White House for an event about women and the criminal justice system.
Former Texas inmate Sharanda Jones, who was in prison for life without parole for her first nonviolent drug offense, was granted clemency by Obama in December will be at the White House events.
In the spring of 2014, former Attorney General Eric Holder – who called mandatory-minimum drug sentences “draconian” – launched the clemency initiative to grant clemency to certain nonviolent drug offenders in federal prison.
To qualify, prisoners had to have served at least 10 years of their sentence, and have no significant criminal history and no connection to gangs, cartels or organized crime. They must have demonstrated good conduct in prison. And they also must be inmates who probably would have received a “substantially lower sentence” if convicted of the same offense today.
The Justice Department’s former pardon attorney, Deborah Leff, stepped down in January because she was frustrated by a lack of resources to process clemency petitions and recommend which ones should be sent to the White House. The new pardon attorney, longtime federal prosecutor Bob Zauzmer, said that his goal – whether he gets more needed resources or not – is “to look at every single petition that comes in and make sure an appropriate recommendation is made to the president.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Sari Horwitz