Obama Pushes Prison Reform, Commutes Sentences for 46

Obama Pushes Prison Reform, Commutes Sentences for 46
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President Obama on Monday commuted the prison sentences of 46 men and women as part of a political push to show solidarity with the African-American base of his party and to encourage congressional support for legislative reforms before he leaves office.

Advocacy groups have for more than six years accused Obama and the Justice Department of being, in their view, stingy with the president’s clemency powers. In early 2014, the administration launched an effort to encourage qualifying prisoners serving time for non-violent offenses to seek their freedom through appeals for White House mercy. Many inmates who petitioned the department would have been released from incarceration before now, if they had been sentenced under current guidelines. 

“Their punishments didn’t fit the crimes,” Obama said in a video released by the White House on Facebook Monday.

The president’s actions, kicking off events planned this week in Pennsylvania and Oklahoma to advocate for criminal justice changes, advance his second-term formula of mixing executive action with appeals to Congress to act.

He will address the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Philadelphia Tuesday, describing reforms and reminding his audience that he believes “ours is a nation of second chances.” Nearly 38 percent of federal inmates are black, and 59 percent white, according to federal statistics updated through the end of May. Although statistics vary, studies underscore the evident racial disparities in sentencing of African-Americans and Hispanics for drug offenses, compared with whites. 

Later this week, Obama is scheduled to visit a federal prison in Oklahoma, a first for any president. Nearly 48 percent of all current federal inmates are serving time for drug offenses, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

Unlike the partisan divisions in Congress that prevent many Obama-supported policies from gaining momentum, criminal justice issues – from rising prison costs to decades-long drug sentences – have captured the attention of conservatives and liberals, including presidential candidates

“Right now, with our overall crime rate and incarceration rate both falling, we’re at a moment when some good people in both parties, Republicans and Democrats, and folks all across the country are coming together around ideas to make the system work smarter, to work better, and I’m determined to do my part wherever I can,” Obama said in his video message.

The legislative drive to repair the criminal justice system has attracted unlikely allies, from the American Civil Liberties Union to Koch Industries, and from Sens. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, to Rand Paul, the GOP libertarian from Kentucky, who is making a bid for the White House. 

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, supports the push for sentencing reform legislation this year. But Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has indicated he’d favor raising some prison sentences, leaving uncertain his panel’s intentions.

Of the 46 commutations Obama signed, 14 benefited inmates who had been sentenced to life behind bars. The commutations go into effect Nov. 10, when inmates are expected to complete transition programs designed to help them re-enter society.

“Some of these individuals who have had their sentences commuted today are individuals who were sentenced to life in prison even though they didn't have a violent record,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest explained. “[In] the view of the president, there probably are some better things we can spend taxpayer dollars on, and there are certainly some things that we can do to make our criminal- justice system more fair.” 

Earnest was vague about whether Obama will continue granting pardons and commutations with regularity throughout the remainder of his tenure. His pattern to date could leave for his successor a backlog of tens of thousands of prisoner petitions.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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