President Obama Announces 46 Commutations in Video Address: “America Is a Nation of Second Chances”

From the White House blog, Neil Eggleston, Counsel to the President

As a former Assistant U.S. Attorney and criminal defense attorney, I’m well acquainted with how federal sentencing practices can, in too many instances, lead nonviolent drug offenders to spend decades, if not life, in prison. Now, don’t get me wrong, many people are justly punished for causing harm and perpetuating violence in our communities. But, in some cases, the punishment required by law far exceeded the offense.

These unduly harsh sentences are one of the reasons the President is committed to using all the tools at his disposal to remedy unfairness in our criminal justice system. Today, he is continuing this effort by granting clemency to 46 men and women, nearly all of whom would have already served their time and returned to society if they were convicted of the exact same crime today.

In a video released today, the President underscored the responsibility and opportunity that comes with a commutation:

In taking this step, the President has now issued nearly 90 commutations, the vast majority of them to non-violent offenders sentenced for drug crimes under outdated sentencing rules.

While I expect the President will issue additional commutations and pardons before the end of his term, it is important to recognize that clemency alone will not fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies. Tune in tomorrow as the President, [in an address to the NAACP], shares additional thoughts on how, working together, we can bring greater fairness to our criminal justice system while keeping our communities safe.

President Obama Grants Commutations

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, President Barack Obama granted commutations of sentence to 46 individuals.

The list is at the link.

Here is one of the letters the president sent:



  1. Obama To Outline Criminal Justice Reform In NAACP Speech

    President Barack Obama on Tuesday will announce a renewed campaign for criminal justice reform, including shorter sentences for non-violent offenders, in a speech at the NAACP convention in Philadelphia.

    Obama will urge a bipartisan congressional effort to reform the criminal justice system, according to a White House official. He will discuss policing and prisons, and the role of communities, and will call for an approach to crimefighting that addresses social problems, such as poverty.

    The speech comes during a week that the administration has devoted to criminal justice issues. On Monday, Obama granted clemency to 46 inmates, mostly imprisoned for non-violent offenses, such as drug charges under stringent mandatory minimum laws. Later this week, he will visit a federal prison in Oklahoma, using it as a backdrop to discuss unjust prison sentences.


  2. The president speaking at the NAACP convention on Tuesday:

    (Transcript link will be posted when it is available)

    News report from USA Today:

    President Obama called for an overhaul of the criminal justice system Tuesday, saying it is all too often “skewed by race and by wealth” and often has a disproportionate impact on communities of color.

    “In too many cases, our criminal justice system ends up being a pipeline from underfunded, inadequate schools to overcrowded jails,” Obama told the NAACP convention in Philadelphia.

    The president said the system “is not as smart as it could be,” not as “fair as it should be.” He said African Americans and Latinos received harsher sentences for similar crimes committed by whites, and “about one in every 35 African-American men, and one out of every 88 Latino men, is serving time right now.”

    Obama also said that “in too many places, black boys and black men, Latino boys and Latino men, experience being treated differently under the law.”[…]

    The president has outlined a variety of general ideas, including an end to mandatory sentencing policies that lead to longer terms for relatively minor offenses. Obama also suggested more alternatives to prison like drug courts and better prison programs to help inmates “make the turn” to lawful behavior.

    While “there are a lot of folks who belong in prison” for murders, rapes, and robberies, Obama said there are also too many people doing hard time for non-violent drug offenses — many of them from poor and minority communities. […]

    Another proposal, Obama said: Restore voting rights to convicts who have served their time in prison.

    • Transcript: Remarks by the President at the NAACP Conference

      Selected quotes:

      THE PRESIDENT: Hello, NAACP! (Applause.) Ah, it’s good to be back. (Applause.) How you all doing today? (Applause.) You doing fine?

      AUDIENCE: Yes!

      THE PRESIDENT: You look fine. (Applause.) All right, everybody have a seat. I got some stuff to say. (Applause.) I’ve got some stuff to say.

      AUDIENCE MEMBER: We love you!

      THE PRESIDENT: I love you back. You know that. (Applause.)

      So, see, now, whenever people have, like, little signs, you all got to write it bigger, because I’m getting old now. (Laughter.) And I like that picture of me. That’s very nice. Thank you. (Applause.)

      Let’s get something out of the way up front. I am not singing today.

      AUDIENCE: Awww —

      THE PRESIDENT: Not singing. Although I will say your board sang to me as I came in for the photograph. (Laughter.) So I know there’s some good voices in the auditorium.

      Let me also say what everybody knows but doesn’t always want to say out loud — you all would rather have Michelle here. (Laughter.) I understand. I don’t blame you. But I will do my best to fill her shoes. (Laughter.) And she sends everybody her love. And Malia and Sasha say hi, as well. (Applause.)

      For 106 years, the NAACP has worked to close the gaps between the words of our founding that we are all created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights — those words try to match those with the realities that we live each and every day.

      In your first century, this organization stood up to lynching and Jim Crow and segregation; helped to shepherd a Civil Rights Act and a Voting Rights Act. I would not be here, and so many others would not be here, without the NAACP. (Applause.)

      In your second century, we’ve worked together to give more of our children a shot at a quality education; to help more families rise up out of poverty; to protect future generations from environmental damage; to create fair housing; to help more workers find the purpose of a good job. And together, we’ve made real progress — including a My Brother’s Keeper initiative to give more young people a fair shot in life; including the passage of a law that declares health care is not a privilege for the few, but a right for all of us. (Applause.)

      The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Think about that. Our incarceration rate is four times higher than China’s. We keep more people behind bars than the top 35 European countries combined. And it hasn’t always been the case — this huge explosion in incarceration rates. In 1980, there were 500,000 people behind bars in America — half a million people in 1980.

      Over the last few decades, we’ve also locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before. (Applause.) And that is the real reason our prison population is so high. In far too many cases, the punishment simply does not fit the crime. (Applause.) If you’re a low-level drug dealer, or you violate your parole, you owe some debt to society. You have to be held accountable and make amends. But you don’t owe 20 years. You don’t owe a life sentence. (Applause.) That’s disproportionate to the price that should be paid.

      As Republican Senator and presidential candidate Rand Paul has said — (laughter) — no, and to his credit, he’s been consistent on this issue — imprisoning large numbers of nonviolent drug offenders for long periods of time, “costs the taxpayers money, without making them any safer.”

      Roughly one-third of the Justice Department’s budget now goes toward incarceration — one-third. And there are outstanding public servants at our Justice Department, starting with our outstanding Attorney General, Loretta Lynch — (applause) — and we’ve got some great prosecutors here today — and they do outstanding work — so many of them. But every dollar they have to spend keeping nonviolent drug offenders in prison is a dollar they can’t spend going after drug kingpins, or tracking down terrorists, or hiring more police and giving them the resources that would allow them to do a more effective job community policing.

      African Americans and Latinos make up 30 percent of our population; they make up 60 percent of our inmates. About one in every 35 African American men, one in every 88 Latino men is serving time right now. Among white men, that number is one in 214. […]

      This is not just barbershop talk. A growing body of research shows that people of color are more likely to be stopped, frisked, questioned, charged, detained. African Americans are more likely to be arrested. They are more likely to be sentenced to more time for the same crime. (Applause.) And one of the consequences of this is, around one million fathers are behind bars. Around one in nine African American kids has a parent in prison.

      What is that doing to our communities? What’s that doing to those children? Our nation is being robbed of men and women who could be workers and taxpayers, could be more actively involved in their children’s lives, could be role models, could be community leaders, and right now they’re locked up for a non-violent offense.

      Good news. Don’t get me preaching now. (Laughter.) I am feeling more hopeful today because even now, when, let’s face it, it seems like Republicans and Democrats cannot agree on anything — (laughter) — a lot of them agree on this. In fact, today, back in Washington, Republican senators from Utah and Texas are joining Democratic senators from New Jersey and Rhode Island to talk about how Congress can pass meaningful criminal justice reform this year.

      More on the plan to address sentencing and justice is in the transcript.

  3. House Republicans are calling the commutations “unconstitutional” executive action. They really have never bothered to read the constitution, have they?

    In a letter addressed to Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Tuesday, 19 members of the House Judiciary Committee — including its chair — attacked the president’s grants of clemency. […]

    The letter’s primary substantive critique of the administration, however, is a novel constitutional argument that Obama and the Justice Department are discriminating in favor of drug offenders in a manner that is somehow legally objectionable. “[T]he fact that the Department’s clemency initiative is focused solely on federal drug offenders continues this Administration’s plainly unconstitutional practice of picking and choosing which laws to enforce and which to change,” the letter claims.

    The suggestion that the Obama administration is crossing a line because they’ve decided to focus their efforts on drug offenders is unusual as an historic matter. President Gerald Ford discriminated in favor of disgraced former presidents in his exercise of the executive’s power to grant mercy, while President George W. Bush discriminated in favor of former high-ranking aides to Vice President Dick Cheney. Presidents have historically exercised their power to grant pardons or clemency as they please, and they are not required to get Congress’s permission in order to do so.


    Sadly, the need for partisan sniping does not bode well for a bipartisan agreement anytime soon:

    In any event, the letter suggests that bipartisan progress on criminal justice reform could prove fragile in the face of some lawmaker’s overarching need to attack leaders of the other party. Outside of Congress, there are encouraging signs for advocates eager to see traditional opponents come together to reduce excessive sentences and otherwise reform the criminal justice system. Liberal groups such as the Center for American Progress (which is the partner organization of ThinkProgress’s parent organization) and the ACLU have joined with conservative groups such as FreedomWorks and Americans for Tax Reform to push for wide-ranging reforms. The Koch brothers are a major supporter of this effort.

  4. How to balance incarceration with public safety: Is It Possible To Let More People Out Of Prison, And Keep Crime Down?

    “I don’t think these current reforms are helping at all,” says Eric Siddall, a prosecutor in Compton. He’s also on the board of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, which bitterly opposes Prop 47 [which reclassified a range of lower-level felonies down to misdemeanors and freed many offenders]. Siddall is very clear about why he thinks crime went down in neighborhoods like this.

    “They beefed up the penalties, and I think the penalties have kept people off the street and because of that, things are safer,” he says.

    And on the face of it, that makes sense: You incarcerate more people, they’re not on the streets to commit crime.

    But academics like Steven Raphael, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert in the costs and benefits of a big prison population, say it’s not that simple.

    “What drove the increase over the last three decades was sort of a series of sentencing reforms that were just kind of layered on top of each other, decade after decade, especially during the ’80s and ’90s,” Raphael says. “And I don’t know that there was really much attention being paid to the effectiveness of this particular tool.”

    He says it’s pretty clear that the tougher sentences did work — at first. When America first started putting away more people, crime went down. But the effect didn’t last.

    Part the challenge will be getting help for people who are released from prison, and helping them get jobs via the check-box changes.

    The Amity Foundation is paid by the state to help people like Arrington re-enter society. And Hernandez says there isn’t enough transitional help for people leaving prison.

    “If they released, like, half the population right now, without services and with the re-entry systems that are currently available, I do believe that more crime will exist,” she says. “Because people need to survive, and they’re gonna do what it takes to survive.”

    Everyone agrees with this.

    “We can’t throw everybody in prison. We don’t want to be a prison state. But there’s got to be a balance somewhere in between, and I don’t know what that balance is.”

    And on this point, the cop is in agreement with the academics. They both say they really don’t know how much the incarceration rate can decline before reaching that tipping point — when it starts pushing crime back up more than society can bear.

    The only real way to find out is to try it.

  5. Charlie Pierce: The President and the Prison Industrial Complex
    In which President Obama will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit a federal prison, as he takes on another tough issue in his efforts towards criminal justice reform.

    … as has been his want since [President Obama] looked into the Great Shoebox of Fks and discovered that he had no more to give, the president is taking on all of criminal-justice reform at once. This week, he has gone after mandatory minimum sentences, and he’s chided various unfunny people about making prison-rape jokes, while suggesting at the same time that using the threat of sexual assault to coerce a confession or a plea is not what you call cricket.

    “We should not tolerate conditions in prison that have no place in any civilized country,” Obama said in a speech at the NAACP National Convention in Philadelphia on Tuesday. “We should not be tolerating overcrowding in prison. We should not be tolerating gang activity in prison.”We should not be tolerating rape in prison, and we shouldn’t be making jokes about it in our popular culture,” Obama added. “That is no joke. These things are unacceptable.”

    As should be obvious, and regardless of the good faith of the people pushing a bipartisan movement toward reform, this is a completely thankless issue.

    What the president is doing on this issue, on the other hand, is pure bully pulpit. He’s prodding and educating, and he’s creating a helluva legacy for whoever the Democratic nominee will be to use in their campaign. And he’s doing the right thing. Which still counts for something.

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