President Obama Commutes 42 Sentences: More to Come

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on June 07, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Last week President Obama announced that he will commute the sentences of 42 federal prisoners, bringing to 348 his administration's total commuted sentences. This president has used the power of commutation more often than seven previous presidents combined, according to the Huffington Post, focusing particularly on commuting the too-severe mandatory minimum sentences of those imprisoned on drug crimes.

The White House's lead counsel, Neil Eggleston, issued a blog post last week explaining the decision and emphasizing the fact that serious reforms to criminal sentencing will have to take place at a congressional level. "There remain thousands of men and women in federal prison serving sentences longer than necessary, often due to overly harsh mandatory minimum sentences," he wrote.

Too Little?

White House counsel said that for there to be true reform, the changes have to come from lawmakers. He wrote in his blog post last week that the president "remains committed to using his clemency power throughout the remainder of the Administration to give more deserving individuals that same second chance." But he emphasized the need for new legislation from Congress to "bring about lasting change to the federal system."

Although the Obama Administration has been more active than most with respect to commuting sentences, there are critics who say he has not done enough and that he could have done more with his two terms in office. A clemency initiative that was supposed to apply to 10,000 prisoners now seems much less robust and Former Attorney General Eric Holder told The Washington Post that it is now thought that only about 1,000-2,000 people in federal prisons will see relief from this initiative.

Rachel Barkow, a professor at New York University, suggested that if Obama were to commute all the unfair sentences that fall under his stated criteria, about 1,500 more federal prisoners would have to receive the presidential grant. That seems unlikely to happen but the possibility can't be ruled out.

Decriminalizing a Category

Approximately 14,000 commutations were granted in a single year by former President Gerald Ford reportedly. Anyone who had deserted or dodged the draft during the Vietnam War was pardoned by the president. The figure shows that there is no limit, theoretically, to how many sentences can be commuted by a president.

But, the Huffington Post points out, "when comparing Obama's commutations to presidents of the past, the White House doesn't mention those from Ford because they applied to an entire category of individuals." Obama's commutations are based on review of individual cases, and if he continues apace, more can be expected this year. His counsel has promised as much.

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