On Wednesday, President Barack Obama cut short 61 drug offenders’ prison sentences — more than a third of which were life terms — in a practical and symbolic push toward overhauling the country’s criminal-justice system. All of the offenders have been serving time for drug possession, intent to sell, or similar crimes, and a handful were also in on weapons charges. Most of them will be released on July 28.
People serving time for drug offenses make up about half of the U.S.’s 199,000 federal inmates. According to a study conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts, between 1988 and 2012 the average prison sentence for a drug crime doubled. Obama has for years called for lessening the strict sentences federal law requires, partly by backing the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a bill — now stalled in Congress, despite some bipartisan support — that would allow judges to bypass mandatory minimums when they seem inappropriate. He also spent a portion of Wednesday meeting with drug offenders who have been pardoned already, either by himself or his predecessors.
Obama, who has 248 commuted sentences during his time in the White House, has used clemency more than any other president. Nonetheless, White House counsel Neil Eggleston wrote about its shortcomings in a blog post: “It is important to remember that clemency is nearly always a tool of last resort that can help specific individuals, but does nothing to make our criminal justice system on the whole more fair and just,” he wrote. “Clemency of individual cases alone cannot fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies.”