WASHINGTON (AP) — Calling America “a nation of second chances,” President Barack Obama cut the prison sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders on Monday in what the White House hopes will be just one prong of a broader push to make the criminal justice system fairer while saving the government money.
Fourteen of those whose sentences were commuted had been sentenced to life in prison and the vast majority to at least 20 years, the president said in a video released by the White House, adding that “their punishments didn’t fit the crime.”
“These men and women were not hardened criminals,” he said, promising to lay out more ideas on criminal justice changes during a speech to the NAACP on Tuesday in Philadelphia.
Since Congress enacted mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes in the 1980s, the federal prison population has grown from 24,000 to more than 214,000, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group seeking sentencing changes.
And the costs, said Obama, are over $80 billion a year to incarcerate people who often “have only been engaged in nonviolent drug offenses.”
While Obama has spoken off and on during his presidency about the need for smarter sentencing and other justice reforms, prospects for significant structural change have improved recently with growing interest among Republicans in Congress.
“Congress simply can’t act fast enough,” said Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. She said that while Obama’s executive actions have picked off some of the most egregious sentencing inequities, significant legislative action is needed to stop the flow of people “going to prison year in and year out, serving too much time.”
Republican support in any such effort is critical, Stewart said, likening it to a Nixon-goes-to-China moment. “Nobody’s going to question a Republican’s credibility on being tough on crime,” she said.
Yet not all Republicans saw the commutations as a step in the right direction. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, accused the president of engaging in showmanship, publicity stunts and political pandering.
“Commuting the sentences of a few drug offenders is a move designed to spur headlines, not meaningful reform,” Sensenbrenner said.
Obama has issued 89 commutations during his presidency, most of them to non-violent offenders sentenced for drug crimes under now-outdated sentencing guidelines. A commutation leaves the conviction in place, but reduces the punishment. The sentences of those who received commutations on Monday will expire on Nov. 10, 2015.
Obama wrote a personal letter to each of those whose sentence was commuted.
In a letter to Jerry Bailey, sentenced to 30 years for conspiracy to violate laws against crack-cocaine, Obama praised Bailey for showing the potential to turn his life around.
“Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity,” Obama wrote.