Criminal Justice

Obama commutes sentences of 95 federal prisoners, grants 2 pardons

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Updated: More than doubling the number of federal prison sentences he has commuted during his entire time in office, President Barack Obama on Friday granted clemency to 95 inmates and pardoned two. Most were nonviolent drug offenders.

A total of 184 prisoners have now been granted clemency by Obama while he was president, and 66 have been pardoned, reports the New York Times (reg. req.). While the number of pardons by Obama is lower than for many prior presidents, he had exercised his power to commute sentences far more frequently than recent predecessors.

A combined total of 88 sentences were commuted by Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, a White House spokeswoman told the Washington Post (reg. req.).

However, Obama has been criticized because the number of sentences commuted is far less than former Attorney General Eric Holder apparently anticipated when he announced in 2013 a sweeping clemency project intended to alleviate sentencing disparities that disproportionately affect blacks.

An earlier post reported that volunteers from the American Bar Association and other lawyer groups which make up Clemency Project 2014 have been helping the Department of Justice with the submission and processing of a number of petitions.

“Clemency Project 2014, an unprecedented, independent effort by the nation’s bar, has recruited and trained nearly 4,000 volunteer lawyers from diverse practice backgrounds and completed screening of more than 25,000 of the more than 33,000 federal prisoners who have requested volunteer assistance,” Clemency Project 2014 announced in a press release on Friday. “As of today, Clemency Project 2014 has submitted 263 petitions to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, with approximately 100 more nearing submission. The balance of the requests are at some stage of the review or drafting process.”

Twenty-seven of the 95 prisoners whose sentences were commuted had petitions which were supported by Clemency Project 2014.

The clemency petitions granted by Obama help put a human face on the problem, which supports efforts to enact legislation that could provide broader relief to federal prisoners, White House counsel W. Neil Eggleston told the Times.

“The theory is not that this by itself is going to make a dent in the prison population—this is part of an overall approach,” Eggleston said. The president “thinks it fits into the broader effort of criminal justice reform. What it does show is, on a very individual basis, the way some sentences in the past have been excessive and far outweighed the seriousness of the crime.”

Among those who benefited from Friday’s sentence commutations is Sharanda Jones, 48, who has served 16 years of a life term. Although she was a first-time, nonviolent offender, sentencing enhancements imposed in a drug conspiracy case left the federal judge with no other sentencing choice, the Washington Post (reg. req.) reported earlier. A Dallas Observer cover story provides more details about the case.

“The president literally saved her life today,” said attorney Brittany Bryd, who filed the clemency petition for Jones.

“I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around,” Obama wrote in a letter he sent to each prisoner. “Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity.”

Those granted clemency on Friday will spend about four months transitioning to lower-security prisons and halfway houses before they are released from custody, probably in April, the Post explains.

Related coverage: “Despite Holder’s call for clemency to free over 10,000, actual number so far is much lower”

ABA Journal: “Clemency Project 2014 is out to help prisoners doing excessive time due to inflexible sentencing”

ABA Journal: “Attorney General Holder says sentencing based on predictive data discriminates”

Updated at 3:40 p.m. to clarify the role of Clemency Project 2014 and the number of petitions it has submitted, and to add a link to the press release.

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