President Obama backed up his calls for reforming the way society punishes non-violent criminals on Wednesday by commuting the sentences of 61 prisoners — a third of them lifers.
"They're Americans who'd been serving time on the kind of outdated sentences that are clogging up our jails and burning through our tax dollars," Obama said ahead of a lunch meeting with some of ex-cons whose sentences he commuted earlier at the Busboys and Poets restaurant in Washington.
Referring to the newest batch of prisoners who are about to be set free, Obama said "most of them are low-level drug offenders whose sentences would have been shorter if they were convicted under today's laws."
"I believe America is a nation of second chances, and with hard work, responsibility and better choices, people can change their lives and contribute to our society," he said. "That's why as long as I'm president, I'm going to keep working for a justice system that restores a sense of fairness, uses tax dollars more wisely, and keeps our communities safe."
Many of the newly-commuted prisoners were doing time for crack cocaine offenses — a group that reformers say is disproportionately African-American.
Among the freed prisoners are four members of a group called Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). They are:
- Ismael Rosa, a salsa musician with a cocaine addiction and two prior drug arrests who was sentenced to life in 1994 for being involved in a drug conspiracy for six days.
- Kenneth Harvey, who also had two priors and got a life sentence in 1990 for possessing 50 grams or more of crack cocaine.
- Carol Denise Richardson, who got life in 2006 for being part of a crack cocaine ring — and who has been separated from her four daughters for a decade.
- Jesse Webster, who was sentenced in 1996 to life in prison for being part of cocaine ring — his first and only drug arrest.
Obama has repeatedly called for either reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes — and has called on Congress to pass a criminal sentence reform bill. While there is some bipartisan support for change, so far it has not happened.
The White House on Tuesday touted that Obama has granted 248 commutations, more than his six predecessors combined.
But the Obama administration has come under withering criticism for lack of progress on his "Clemency Project 2014," which was aimed at freeing drug offenders who were sentenced to prison before the easing of notoriously harsh mandatory minimum rules.
So far, Obama has pardoned only 70 people — the fewest since John Adams.
His clemency initiative triggered an avalanche of applications.
But the administration has not kept up: at last count, there were more than 9,115 pending petitions for commutations, compared to 2,785 in 2014, according to the Justice Department. There are also 958 pending applications for pardons, the highest number since 2011.
The White House's former pardon attorney, Deborah Leff, resigned in January. In her departing letter, obtained by USA Today through a Freedom of Information Act request, Leff said she'd been hamstrung by a lack of resources, poor access to the Office of White House Counsel, and had been instructed to set aside thousands of petitions.
Julie Stewart, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which pushes for the easing of drug sentencing laws and for the expanded use of clemency, praised Obama's new batch of commutations. She said she'd like to see more.
"But he can¹t single-handedly undo the damage caused by 30 years of terrible sentencing laws," Stewart said in a statement. "Only Congress can do that."