WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama surpassed the 1,000 mark for commutations granted during his presidency on Tuesday after shortening sentences for 79 people.
Obama has been granting commutations at rapid-fire pace in his final months in office. All told, he’s commuted more sentences than the past 11 presidents combined, the White House said.
Most of those who have received clemency are nonviolent drug offenders, though many were also convicted of firearms violations related to drug crimes. A significant portion had been serving life sentences.
“It makes no sense for a nonviolent drug offender to be serving decades, or sometimes life, in prison,” Obama wrote in a Facebook post. “That’s not serving taxpayers, and it’s not serving the public safety.”
Yet Obama’s call for clemency has run into opposition from some corners, including from President-elect Donald Trump. Though Obama is expected to grant more commutations in his final weeks, officials acknowledged a large number of applications will be pending when Obama leaves office.
That means it will be up to Trump’s administration to decide whether to grant or reject them, said Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates.
Trump, during the campaign, warned Americans that their safety could be at risk because of Obama’s move to set prisoners free ahead of schedule. That critique fits into Trump’s broader call for restoring “law and order” in the U.S. and cracking down on crime.
“Some of these people are bad dudes,” Trump said in October after another batch of Obama commutations. He said those individuals were out “walking the streets,” and added, “Sleep tight, folks.”
Not all of those receiving commutations will be set free right away. Some will see their sentences end in 2017 or 2018 — long after Obama leaves office — and in some cases on the condition they participate in drug treatment programs.
Shauna Barry-Scott of Ohio said her experience of having her sentence shortened in 2015 was surreal. She described her initial reaction as “shock, overwhelming joy, fear of the unknown.”
“I had to pinch myself,” said Norman Brown, a Maryland man whose life sentence for cocaine distribution Obama commuted last year. He said after lawyers informed him of the decision, he sat speechless for three minutes as he absorbed what it would mean to have a second chance.
Obama’s bid to lessen the burden on nonviolent offenders reflects his long-stated view that decades of onerous sentencing requirements put tens of thousands behind bars for far too long. He has used the aggressive pace of his commutations to increase pressure on Congress to pass a broader fix while using his executive powers to address individual cases where possible.
Though both parties in Congress have called for a criminal justice overhaul, momentum has petered out, creating dim prospects for a legislative breakthrough in the near future.
Obama has been calling for years for phasing out strict sentences for drug offenses, arguing they lead to excessive punishment and incarceration rates unseen in other developed countries. With his support, the Justice Department in recent years directed prosecutors to rein in the use of harsh mandatory minimums.
The Obama administration has also expanded criteria for inmates applying for clemency, prioritizing nonviolent offenders who have behaved well in prison, aren’t closely tied to gangs and would have received shorter sentences if they had been convicted a few years later.