Obama set to commute dozens of nonviolent drug sentences, aides say

Aides say President Barack Obama is set to commute the sentences of dozens of nonviolent federal drug offenders in the coming weeks, according to a report on Friday in The New York Times.

The president’s expected move is in line with his administration’s efforts to undo what it sees as the unfair sentencing practices imposed by “tough on crime” policies, which frequently mandated harsh prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, disproportionately affecting black and Hispanic men.

Obama is by no means the only politician in Washington who has lately taken a hard look at sentencing and judicial reform.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has been a visible proponent of sentencing reform and a coalition of organizations as disparate as Koch Industries and the liberal Center for American Progress has formed to press for judicial reform, displaying rare bipartisan determination to address the issue.

Article II of the Constitution grants the president wide-ranging power to grant commutations and pardons for federal crimes. A commutation lessens the sentence of someone who has been convicted of a crime, but does not absolve that person of legal guilt. Pardons go further, nullifying all the effects of a conviction.

Despite his broad rights to do so, Obama has been staid in his allowance of clemency, granting just one commutation and five pardons during his first term.

The criteria inmates must meet in order to be considered for commutations include: having been incarcerated longer than 10 years; demonstrating good behavior while in prison; and having received a sentence that is longer than would be granted under current sentencing laws.

In January 2014, the Justice Department began a drive to encourage some low-level drug offenders to seek clemency. Later that year, the United States Sentencing Commission released new rules making nearly 50,000 federal prisoners serving time for drug offenses eligible for early release starting in November 2015.

Since 2014, Obama has given an increased number of commutations, granting nine during the 2014 fiscal year, and 33 so far during fiscal year 2015. That number will increase substantially if reports of the White House’s planned reprieves bear fruit.

The number of presidential pardons and commutations granted has fallen in recent decades. Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford issued an average of 735 pardons and 103 commutations each. The five presidents who held office before Obama, by comparison, issued an average of 317 pardons and 23 commutations each, according to Department of Justice statistics.

Obama has so far issued 64 pardons and 43 commutations.